Category Archives: Rita Smith’s Blogs

Canada’s Food Guide: Another way of saying, “Let’s argue!”

My keto version of the Food Guide eliminates the Whole Grain Foods quadrant; but that’s just me. The Food Guide is a GUIDE, not THE LAW.

Health Canada announced its new Food Guide in January, and first and foremost, I congratulate all the scientists, researchers and staff who worked for a decade to get the job done.

The rollout is an absolutely enormous project, a job I had the privilege of undertaking with a fantastic team in 2007.

The Food Guide – which is a GUIDE, not the law, not carved in stone, not meant to dictate the same diet for 35 million different people – has been part of life in Canada since 1942.

In 2007, our group of stakeholder scientists and nutritionists numbered over 600. The Guide had been researched, discussed and argued for 13 years. It was the source of much controversy and dispute; journalists were (and are) highly suspicious of Canada’s Food Guide ever since it was revealed in the early 1990s that the number of eggs recommended had been influenced by the egg lobby.

I can vouch for the intense desire food lobby groups have had over the years to influence the Guide: in 2007, brand new in my job as the Director of Communications to the Minister of Health when my phone rang. I picked it up; it was a man I had never met before. He introduced himself as the lobbyist for the soft drink industry.

“We are very disappointed that Health Canada has decided to label soft drinks as an “occasional item,” he blustered into the phone.

“We are very disappointed that childhood obesity has tripled in the last 15 years,” I responded without hesitation.

Not surprisingly, I never heard from him again; I still laugh thinking about that call.

In one meeting, as we wrestled with the fact that we were doomed to upset SOMEBODY no matter what the Guide recommended, I grew frustrated with the talk of “the meat lobby this” and “the egg lobby that.”

“Why are we worrying about the most expensive things people can buy, when really we should be encouraging them to eat more of the most nutritious and inexpensive foods? Who stands up for broccoli?!” I wanted to know.

Staff kindly humoured my fevered ideas about inventing Broccoli and Carrot mascot costumes and sending them to schools and sporting events. We never did any of those things, but it was a great rollout nevertheless.

The Food Guide is the second-most requested document the federal government provides. Only Income Tax forms are requested more often.

In 2007, the new Guide was in such demand, our first print run was 4 million copies. We had not only a printing press on stand-by, but a PAPER MILL on stand-by. The pressure to get the Guide finalized was immense. Scientists, nutritionists and journalists were still arguing the day we went to press (as they are still arguing now) but somehow, they were able to come to enough of a consensus to get the thing done and distributed.

In 2007, some of the big new changes included making fruits and vegetable the basis for a healthy diet. Now, in 2019, Health Canada is recommending fully half of “the plate” be fruits and vegetables. It clearly states that water should be the drink of choice; and that culture is important and we should eat together. These are great advances!

Of course, I disagree with the grain recommendations, but then, it wouldn’t be Canada’s Food Guide if we weren’t arguing about it.

Bon appetite, eh?

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Rita’s Excellent Keto Adventure

Over the past 6 years, I allowed myself to slide from half-marathon condition to almost 200 pounds. I never could have imaged it would happen so fast! I did not weigh this much in any of my 3 pregnancies. I was short of breath all the time; climbing a flight of stairs was a giant effort.
This is one of my favourite “after” photos – at an event with Jax the Wonder Drug-Sniffing Dog in September 2018, after 7 months on the Keto Diet.
There are A LOT of videos on YouTube that can get you started on Keto; I’ve watched hours and hours of them. Some are so complex you almost need a degree in biochemistry to stay awake for them; others are extremely short and simple.  I will post a few of the most helpful ones that I’ve found below. Before I do that, I’ll give you my short summary of “The Keto Experience.” 
  1. I was never hungry, and have never felt in any way deprived, on the Keto diet. 
  2. Our grain-based diet is a horrible, harmful lie. 
  3. A high fat, low carbohydrate diet seems counter-intuitive and maybe for some people, it is. However, for myself and several others in my family (diabetes runs in my family) have found ENORMOUS success on this diet – including all measurable blood metrics including cholesteral, tri-glycerides, HDL and LDL.
  4. Once you get your mind around the idea of “no white” (no rice, pasta, bread or potatoes) everything else is pretty easy. 
  5. Tons of green vegetables are a lot more palatable when you can flavour with fats (fry in bacon fat, top with butter or toss with salad dressing). You’ll come to enjoy it! 
  6. You are probably already eating all the protein you need; once you start paying close attention to protein (as I did) it was not hard to make sure I got enough. 
  7. For several months, I tried to keep my daily carb intake below 20 grams. This took effort and A LOT OF LABEL READING! You’ll be shocked at all the places you find carbs, which will surprise you. (Even in sugar-free gum? C’MON……) 
  8. You will need to give up virtually every fruit except berries. Fortunately you can get those all year (fresh in summer, frozen in winter) so you’ll be OK. Apples, oranges, melon and grapes are out, full stop. 
  9. Juice, pop, beer, wine, Gatorade….all forms of liquid sugar will be GONE from your diet. On the bright side, water from the tap is a lot cheaper! Herbal teas (hot or cold) are also flavourful and inexpensive. Coffee is still good! And you get to put real cream in it. 
  10. When I lost 60 pounds and reached my goal, I looked around for something to add to my diet to maintain my weight and settled on seeds: roast melon seeds (which feel crunchy and salty, like chips) and Chia seeds in my breakfast shakes. This seems to be working. 
Here are two of my favourite videos to get you started:  And here are my best, most useful recipes. Some I videoed years ago; others I have developed just recently specific to a Keto Diet. For fun, I’ll start with delicious Sugar-Free Chocolate, so that you can see there are LOTS of great things to eat while losing weight on this diet. I’ll update this post with new recipes in the weeks ahead. Good luck! Sugar-free chocolate – a hands-down favourite recipe! This is low carb but NOT low calorie (the recipe is half butter. And it tastes like it!) Eat it as a treat, not a meal, and you’ll be fine on your Keto diet. Fruity Fluff – thick, rich, tangy with strained 6% fat yogurt and frozen berries. Better than ice cream! Chia Puddings and Shakes – use one of nature’s “superfoods” to add fiber & omega 3s to your diet. Shiritake Noodles – put your favourite pasta sauce on this! Tomato sauce, meat sauce, clams, creamy or cheesy sauces, everything you love works on these low calorie, low carb noodles. The Smithopoulos Greek Dinner – every item on this menu is a perfect Keto food (just skip the rice or pita bread). The video for Tzatziki also details how to strain yogurt with cheesecloth, which you will want to do for the Fruity Fluff recipe above. Opa!! (Oh also – one of the few videos in which you can see me before my weight loss.) Perfect Eggs – Hard boiled or soft boiled Did you know that the USDA has removed cholesterol from its list of dietary substances of concern? Eggs have ALWAYS been good for you; and if you are on a Keto diet now, eggs are virtually the perfect food. Eat the whole egg, yolk and all. How to fry an egg – on a Keto diet you are not only allowed but ENCOURAGED to fry your eggs in a bit of butter. You can also eat bacon and eggs. Mussels – are almost pure protein and so easy to prepare (they do not need to be pried apart like oysters). I dip my steamed mussels in soy sauce and wasabi mustard and eat with pickled ginger like a rice-free sushi/sashimi experience. Pho – replace the rice noodles with Shiritake noodles. With that small change, Pho is a perfect Keto dish! Vitamin Supplements on a Keto Diet I figure it’s less a matter of what you take (you can always switch products anytime) as a matter of finding a system/process/routine that works for you, which is what I was able to develop over a period of a few months. I really HATED the handfuls of vitamins and avoided taking them whenever possible; I actually enjoy the supplement beverages, made ahead of time and chilled in the fridge. Find out what YOU like, and what you WILL do – Keto Slaw – this really helps when you are trying to eat 8 cups of green vegetables per day. While most squash (and carrots) are “out” on a low-carb diet, high-fiber, low-net carb Spaghetti Squash is fine to eat and very nutritious. You can use it as a replacement for spaghetti with your favourite pasta sauces, or as a replacement for high-carb squash in your favourite squash recipes – a double win! I have found the biggest challenge people face using Spaghetti Squash for the first time is that they tend to under-cook it. In order to get the long, stringy strands you want for your recipes, the squash needs to be thoroughly baked – easily 90 minutes or more at 350 degrees for an average size squash. Here’s a video I made some time ago to help you figure out the basics:
New Year’s Day seems as good a time as any to ask, “Is there alcohol on a Keto diet?” Generally speaking, no. I gave up all forms of alcohol when I went on Keto, which I think helped a lot. The reasons eliminating alcohol helped a lot are so complex (your liver naturally processes alcohol before carbs….) that it’s just simpler to skip alcohol. If you go on Keto AND skip alcohol as part of your 2019 program, you’ll have a massive weight loss advantage. This video is helpful and reasonable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCh1yHr_jVw
Roast vegetables are a real mainstay on a Keto diet! I ate two ziploc bags today while on the road….you can add cauliflower, broccoli, onions, celery, red green or orange peppers – the variations are endless! It’s a bit of a trick to cut the pieces to sizes which allow everything to cook to roughly the same doneness. You don’t want anything to be too soggy if you plan to eat them out of a bag, but they are also great for stir-fries, pasta sauces and just as hot vegetables with dinner.
Here is the biggest reaons I felt compelled to commit to recovering my health and getting back into shape: the birth of Adeline Grace in November 2017, and then Ada Nightengale in September 2018.

Ada is so beautful and happy! I can’t wait to meet her. It’s hard to be a Gramma from across the ocean.

Baby, it’s smart outside

On December 10th I made the five hour drive home from the United States. Switching to Canadian radio, I was flabbergasted to find we are still discussing the lyrics to the Christmas song, “Baby, it’s cold outside.”

Why, I wondered, is a 50-year-old song about two adults cuddling in front of a fire bothering so many people? I had just left Michigan, proud birthplace of Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem), who became a millionaire writing songs about killing women and raping their corpses. Ariana Grande is singing about wrist icicles. Eeeeeew.

Radio host Evan Soloman pointed out that many listeners feel “Baby, it’s cold outside” is “rapey.” Endless ink has been spilled discussing whether it flies in the face of the #MeToo movement; some station have banned it altogether.

I suggest, once again, that we are failing young women. Why are we engaged in this debate at all, in 2018? Last time I checked, women have the power to say “no” to men and it’s incumbent upon us to do so when the situation calls for it.

The woman in this song has the power to say “no,” get up and go at any time. Why are millions of intelligent people pretending otherwise? This is not a good idea to give young women – or young men.

Here’s a 2018, common-sense version of the lyrics to “Baby, it’s cold outside.” I doubt it will crack the Top Ten, but it will be closer to reality, and it’s good news for men and women everywhere.

 

“I don’t plan to stay (Baby it’s cold outside)

So I’m on my way (Baby it’s cold outside)

This evening has been (Nice that you chose to drop in)

So very nice (I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice).

 

I’ll call home so Mother won’t worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry?)

Father will unlock the door (Listen to the fireplace roar)

I’m not stressed by a little snow flurry (Beautiful please don’t hurry)

A drink? I don’t want any more (I’ll put some records on while I pour)

 

I know how to think (Baby it’s bad out there)

I said “no” to that drink (No cabs to be had out there)

I’m sure I know how (Your eyes are like starlight now)

To break this spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell) (Why thank you)

 

 

I’m sure that you heard me say ‘no’ sir (Mind if move in closer?)

At least you can say that you tried (What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?)

I’m not gonna stay (Baby don’t hold out)

I can handle the cold outside.

 

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He did….what??

I am not a doctor – I have a high school education.

But here is a partial  list of things I have seen in my lifetime that result in human beings taking part in behaviours which are completely out of character for them:

  • extreme stress including bankruptcy or massive personal loss
  • mental illness, mood disorder or brain disorder including brain tumour
  • blood chemical imbalances including diabetes
  • medications, new medications, or medication changes (brand or dosages)
  • concussion & untreated concussion
  • small stoke or untreated stroke
  • Alzheimer’s, especially Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia
  • heart condition which includes reduced blood flow to the brain
  • food allergies, undiscovered or developed later in life
  • supplements and steroid medications. Creatine taken to build muscles, which is available over the counter, has caused enormous problems for some men that I know who have taken it
  • Substance abuse
  • PTSD

And, added after conversation with a very smart woman:

  • Addiction, including addiction to social media

These situations occur so consistently in my life that I have learned that when someone does something utterly bizarre and out of character, I should just stand back and shut up until I can determine what is actually going on.

Through the mental health training I have been fortunate enough to take, I have learned that often the most devastating consequence of a breakdown or psychotic break is the shame with which the person lives afterward. I would hope never to add to such shame but only be patient and understanding until all the facts are known; I hope I would be afforded the same consideration in a similar situation.

Alpha: Spoiler alert. It’s not what you think.

This wolf, while injured, lay still and allowed a strange human being to tie a muzzle on his snout. This will be hilariously funny to anyone who has ever put a muzzle on a tame, trained dog.

 

“Alpha: The Movie:” Spoiler alert!

It’s not what you might think. It’s true that as a dog owner, I was surprised that the main character Keda had less difficulty taming an aggressive, fully-grown wild wolf than the typical Labrador Retriever owner has potty-training history’s most docile breed.

I was a bit bemused that a teen-aged boy who can’t start a fire, won’t kill a hog and doesn’t want to leave his mommy to go hunting with the men was being groomed to be Leader of the tribe; but it’s fiction, after all, so I suspended disbelief.

(“He’s not ready!” his mother frets. “He leads with his heart, not his spear!” Geez, I thought, I hope she’s ready to run fast if a hostile tribe descends under Keda’s leadership…)

The crucial plot turn – Keda lacks the good sense to get out of the way of a charging bison – leaves him wounded and abandoned to the elements. He rallies, tames a wolf in no time, and starts the long, cold hike back home. It’s a good thing he has Alpha, the tame wolf, to look after him, protect him, and provide him with food. Why, Alpha looks after him almost as well as his mommy did!

So that, by movie’s end, as Keda (who nursed Alpha back to health, cleansed his wounds, dried his fur, and spent months sleeping next to him) realizes that Alpha is actually a FEMALE dog only when she gives birth to a litter of puppies, it’s hardly a surprise at all. What teen-aged hunter WOULDN’T notice the extreme lack of penis and testicles on an animal?

So, “Alpha” is not the alpha-male, leader of the pack. Alpha is a female. That’s not the surprise. It’s 2018, after all.

The real jaw-dropper was watching the credits roll at the finish of the movie. Out of curiosity, I stuck with them right to the end – watching, watching, watching, watching, got a coffee, watching, went to the bathroom, watching, checked my email, tried to estimate how many dozens – no, hundreds, no THOUSANDS of people worked on the worst movie I’ve ever seen – watching watching watching until there it was: my suspicions were justified.

Funded by taxpayers.

Surprise!

I paid $17.99 for this movie. An episode of “The Littlest Hobo” would have been more entertaining, and more realistic.

Oh, and for good measure, Alpha the Female Alpha is played by “Chuck.”

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Click here to view the credits. Get a coffee first.

 

 

Wake up! The world is your oyster!

Dave, Johannah and Tom Smith worked so hard to pay for school and get good marks. They work equally hard in their jobs! That’s what young people do when they have hope for a fruitful future; when they are optimistic and believe the effort will pay off. I wish that feeling, belief and attitude for every young person growing up in the United States and Canada right now.

I was working for the Government of Ontario when we reached 3.5% growth for several consecutive quarters, eliminated the deficit, balanced the budget and created 1,000,000 million new jobs. I remember getting the newspapers from the front door to see the headline that Ontario had created 45,000 jobs the previous month.

I ran upstairs, pounding on Dave and Tom’s bedroom doors and shouting them out of bed:

“WAKE UP! WAKE UP! THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER* – YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT!!! THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER – GET OUT THERE AND DO SOMETHING!”

I will never forget the feeling of joy and elation, optimism and energy I felt pounding through my veins. I had worked like a dog for my entire life to keep Casa Des Smiths up and running, lights on, food in the fridge, bills paid, in our Greektown house close enough for the boys to take the subway to University of Toronto. When Mike Harris pulled off everything he promised he would – including enough university spaces for the Double Cohort, which included Tom and Dave – and I could see they could have any future they wanted if they were willing to work for it, I honestly felt like all of my dreams had come true.

All three of my kids worked an incredible daily grind for years, going to school full time AND working full time (how did they do that??) and have landed on their feet in good jobs, with wonderful partners and happy lives. The world is indeed their oyster!

Seeing today’s 4.1%  growth numbers from the United States of America – coupled with virtually full employment – I feel like pounding on the door and shouting the whole continent awake:

““WAKE UP! WAKE UP! THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER – YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT!!! THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER – GET OUT THERE AND DO SOMETHING!”

 

*One of my favourite memories from this period was the time I celebrated receiving a large cheque by taking them to Barberian’s Steak House for dinner, where they were allowed to order anything they wanted (“Can we have, like appetizers and dessert too, or just dinner?” they asked me. They were conscious of budget from an early age…)

Looking at the menu, David noted “The ancient Romans used to pay for oysters their weight in gold, because they believed they had an aphrodisiac effect and improved their performance with women.”

“Good God!” Tom exclaimed. “What did they pay for the WOMEN?”

We laughed so hard. It was such a fun night.

 

 

 

Every dog is descended from a wolf….even Rosie

Beautiful, calm, obedient – Nikita had no future as a sled racing dog, and an abusive owner in Alaska until RJ “stole” her.

Friday the 13th turned out to be quite a special “Dog Day” here at Rita’s Rest Home for Wayward Dogs.

Forest, Leia, Rosie and I paid our first visit to the Bowmanville Leash-Free dog park, where we met up with Dalmations, Labs, a Bassett Hound and a Mastiff presciently named “Ruckus.” Tiny Maltese Rosie held her own with all of them.

The highlight of the adventure, however, was definitely meeting Nikita, a born-and-bred Alaskan sled dog who is actually one-quarter wolf.

I need to preface the Nikita story – very sad beginning, very happy ending – by offering  a belief that I have long shared with my brother Pete about dog souls.

Human beings only think they are the ones in charge when it comes time to find a dog; in fact, somewhere out in the Universe a dog’s soul is looking for YOU. When that soul and the dog in which it resides (albeit, temporarily) locates you, you may persuade yourself that you’ve reached a logical, rational executive decision to acquire a dog.

Meanwhile, that dog soul has been looking for you, has located you, and has no plans to let you get away.

Upon arrival at the dog park, I scanned the perimeters of the field for other dogs; Rosie is very small and sometimes a bit nervous, although that passes quickly. When I spotted Nikita laying in the shade with her owner all the way across the field, I was automatically a bit worried about whether or not she was friendly to other dogs, as not all Husky/Malamutes are.

After the initial introduction, Rosie was not at all intimidated by Nikita and in fact was quite curious about her. Forest sensed no problem.

Wandering along the fence, pre-occupied with picking up dog poos, I did not even notice quiet, stealthy Nikita cross the field; when I looked up, she was sitting in front of Rosie and wagging her bushy tail furiously. With one bright blue eye and one brown, she has an exotic, mysterious look. She seemed to know better than to run or jump around Rosie the way a more obliviously enthusiastic dog would.

Before I had time to get anxious, her owner walked up.

“What a beautiful dog!” I exclaimed sincerely. “She looks like she is part wolf!”

“She is 25 per cent wolf[1],” he nodded. “I had her DNA tested when we got home. Nikita is from Alaska.”

“How did she get here?” I gasped.

“I stole her,” RJ shrugged philosophically.

Fascinated already by the idea of a wolf/dog from Alaska finding her way to Bowmanville, Ontario, I asked RJ how he came to “steal” her and this is the story he told me:

“I was in Alaska, fishing with a buddy who has a boat there. One day we were sitting high up on a hill, and I could see a fenced-in property below us.

‘What is that?’ I asked.

‘That’s a breeding and training business which raises sled-racing dogs,’ he told me. ‘It’s not a nice place.’”

RJ went on to explain that dogsled racing is a huge business and important part of the economy in Alaska; Nikita had been bred and was being raised to race in the Iditarod, the world-famous race which takes place between Anchorage and Nome every year.

“Humans seem to love it, but it is a cruel and awful life for the dogs,” he said. I could feel the anger starting to rise in his voice.

“They spend the first four months of their lives chained to a post on a chain about 3 feet long…they are not pets. Every so often, the owner walks through the yard with a taser and shocks them, to keep them mean. Dogs die running the Iditarod. Nobody cares.

“Coke and Exxon and other corporate sponsors….they pay money to be part of it. Nobody cares about the dogs.”

I nodded sadly: “I caught about an hour of the finals on TV last year,” I agreed. “It looks just brutal for the dogs.  Walt Disney even made a movie about it, ‘Snow Dogs,’ it was so happy and looked like so much fun.” In the real Iditarod in 2017, four dogs died of exhaustion. In 2016, one was run over by a snowmobile.

“The breeder didn’t like Nikita – she is small and too submissive, not mean enough,” RJ continued, obviously upset now. “One day I saw him kick her through the air, right across the yard. That night, I hopped the fence and stole her.

“I’ve never had a dog before,” he noted. “She is the first dog I’ve ever owned. She is the sweetest, quietest, most obedient dog I could ever have wanted. Now, I can’t imagine life without her.”

I shared with RJ the “Pete & Rita Theory of Dog Souls in the Universe.”

“You think you rescued Nikita,” I pointed out. “Actually, she rescued you!”

“That’s very true!” he laughed, ruffling her head and ears as she gazed up at him adoringly.

I read once about the fact that there must have been something very special about wolves, because aeons ago human beings were inspired to share their food and the warmth of their campfires with them as the very first domesticated animals. Not cats, not bears, not birds, not deer. Wolves.

Humans have been providing food and shelter, and the descendants of wolves have been sharing love, loyalty, companionship and protection ever since. Our souls have been entwined for a very long time.

Stop to imagine: every single dog in that dog park, whether sleek Dalmation, jolly Labrador Retriever, massive Mastiff, baying Bassett Hound, or lap-dog Maltese – traces its ancestry back to the wolf. Vastly different in size, in intelligence, in personality and in demeanor, all those dogs came from the same original dog, the wolf.

It was very special, to have Nikita there to remind us of this miraculous fact. In a symbolic way, she represents the Mother of all Dogs.

It was a nice Friday the 13th.

All dogs are descended from wolves – even Rosie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1][1] As far as I know, it is not legal to own a wolf hybrid in Ontario, although they are very common in the north where unsprayed female dogs breed with wolves on a regular basis. They are less common in other areas. In Alberta, owners with a special license are allowed to own wolf hybrids.

Merit based immigration is the OPPOSITE of racist

Congratulations to the United States for preparing to move to a merit-based immigration system, which Canada and Australia have used for decades.

 

As an immigrant to Canada myself, I have first-hand experience of the thoroughness of the process. It was stressful and nerve-wracking; but it also makes me appreciate the work that goes into vetting legal immigrants to Canada.

 

This is not an unkind process: organizing a productive and prosperous society allows Canada to take good care of its citizens. We contribute considerable sums of money to international programs; we take in a lot of refugees.

 

I’m dismayed to hear media pundits in the US claiming that a merit-based system is racist: it is exactly the opposite of racist. An engineer from India or Africa who speaks English or French and has a relative living here will quickly move to the front of the line ahead of an applicant from England or Ireland with less education and no relative living here.

 

An applicant from China who plans to start a business and create jobs will be considered before an American simply looking for a job.

 

Canada’s immigration program is not perfect, but it’s one of the most successful on the globe.

 

My family moved to Ontario from Michigan when I was 13 years old; I arrived as a Landed Immigrant.

 

I got married and had three kids, started a business and was hard at work and paying taxes. Imagine my shock when, returning from a trade show in San Francisco, I got pulled out of line at airport Customs and moved to a small room where I was grilled for what seemed an eternity.

 

Officers wanted to know where I lived, what I did, and most importantly, why I had never applied for Canadian citizenship.

 

Eventually I was told:  “OK. We believe you live in Toronto. But, you should get your citizenship. You have been here for 20 years. Canada expects you to make a commitment.”

 

I applied, and thus began the most nerve-wracking six months of my life. I almost never slept, wondering what would happen if I failed the test: would Canada make me leave?

 

The test was 50 questions long, but there were five different tests you could get, so I tried to memorize all 250 possible answers. I kept a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the bathroom so I could review it on every visit.

 

I had to do two interviews, one with a bureaucrat and one with a judge. I was so nervous at the first interview that I actually lost my vision, walked off of the curb on St. Clair and stepped directly in front of a car – which fortunately stopped before it hit me.

 

When I passed and was sworn in as a citizen, we had a giant family celebration.

 

After the 2008 recession, my American nephew asked me about immigrating to Canada. I went onto the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website to check it out, and was thoroughly impressed: there is actually a pre-questionnaire to fill in, to determine if you should bother applying for the full process.

 

Why do you want to come to Canada? Which French or English test have you passed? Do you have a relative in Canada? Do you plan to work or start a business?

 

Canada’s merit-based system has served it well. It is hard but fair, and it works.

 

Good luck, America! Welcome to the 21st century.

 

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Tory’s Mental Health Hypocrisy

When more than 1000 cab drivers don yellow t-shirts and visit City Hall to tell politicians that it’s a bad idea to devastate an entire industry and the 15,000 men who make their living in it, you’d think the Mayor might notice….but instead, he’s listening to bureaucrats about mental health at Hart House on April 9th. I hope he learns something, anything; like, bankruptcy is bad for your mental health.

On Tuesday April 9th, Mayor John Tory hosted the Mental Health and Cities Summit to discuss the importance of mental health in an urban setting.

The blatant hypocrisy of John Tory speaking on the importance of urban mental health mere months after he brazenly threw 15,000 Toronto taxi drivers and their families under the bus financially, professionally, and emotionally is beyond appalling. His support for Uber’s business model – irresponsible to the point of being criminal – has destroyed the lives of thousands of hard-working drivers and put consumer safety at risk.

As my mother used to say, “I’d hate to have his nerve in a tooth.”

Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told National Public Radio in February: “I’ve been organizing taxi drivers since 1996, and I’ve never seen the level of desperation. I’ve started to receive so many calls from drivers seeking resources for suicide prevention and talking about homelessness and eviction notices…this is not accidental.”

New York City livery driver Douglas Schifter’s February 5th suicide in front of City Hall (he blew his brains out with a shotgun) was only one of three taxi driver suicides which took place in that city in three short months. Another, 57 year old Danilo Castillo, jumped off the roof of a building after calling his wife to detail for her his financial devastation.

Why does this matter to Torontonians? Because thousands of our taxi drivers are in exactly the same position: indebted to banks, committed to thousands of dollars in commercial insurance payments, bound by an incredible number of city by-laws. They are now competing with approximately 50,000 ride share drivers who are not required to follow these rules.

Toronto drivers may be a year or so behind the curve of the New York drivers, but their day of financial reckoning is coming, and they know it.

Law-abiding taxi owners who believed the  City of Toronto when it encouraged them to invest in a taxi plate, a safe car, training, mechanical inspections, security cameras and more are now scrambling to make payments and to support their families. Many simply cannot.

Toronto’s review of By-law 546, which invented an entire new set of dumbed-down rules for Uber and Lyft, was scheduled to be presented to Council in July 2017. Incredibly, Staff have simply and arbitrarily decided not to report until 2019. Apparently, direction from Council doesn’t mean anything anymore, and why should it? Municipal Licensing and Standards staff will continue to pick up a steady pay cheque for the next two years. Taxi drivers? Not so much.

One driver I met had his own apartment in spring of 2014. By summer, he was sleeping on a friend’s couch. By fall, he was homeless. Probably this has had an effect on his “urban mental health.” Hopefully, John Tory’s conference will help him.

Latif Gowher represents the 751 drivers who each invested roughly $80,000 putting an Accessible van on the road. “I won’t replace my van when it ages out, and a lot of other drivers won’t, either. The City wants cab owners to subsidize Accessible service; this has been a total failure.”

At a recent industry meeting, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam fretted to Taxi News “There should be a way to change things…I don’t want to see these 751 drivers homeless.”

That’s a nice thought. Perhaps asking John Tory to demand MLS staff deliver their report less than two years late could be a start.

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Where are the Social Justice Warriors standing up for Cabbies? Probably in an Uber, ‘cos it’s cheap

Feb. 12 Update: My column below ran in Taxi News in November, 2017. I did not post it to my website or Facebook because, as I noted a few times in the piece, nobody cares about the plight of taxi drivers.

However, Douglas Schifter’s suicide in front of New York City Hall last week was so sad and so compelling that I decided perhaps it was worth posting.

Additionally, I have decided that any politician or public person who promotes Uber and Uber’s criminal business model and then hypocritically runs out to support mental health causes and events should be called out and shamed. John Tory, come on down…

***

New York City taxi driver blows his brains out with a shotgun in front of City Hall

Early Monday morning, Douglas Schifter, a longtime New York City livery driver, posted an emotional 1,700-word note on Facebook.

Later that day, Schifter took his life outside of City Hall in Manhattan. His suicide has underscored the financial and emotional challenges for professional drivers, whose industry has been disrupted by companies such as Uber and Lyft.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance notes: “I’ve been organizing taxi drivers since 1996, and I’ve never seen the level of desperation. I’ve started to receive so many calls from drivers seeking resources for suicide prevention and talking about homelessness and eviction notices, and so, something has to be done here. This is not accidental, working people have a right to be protected.”

https://www.npr.org/2018/02/10/584757778/taxi-drivers-face-financial-crisis?sc=tw

I had to laugh when these brave and determined men launched a 4 day hunger strike, during which they slept every night on the cold concrete in front of Toronto City Hall, were told by security that they had to remove their tents because they had no permits. “They are Uber tents!” one of the drivers replied merrily. Even faced with financial disaster, there was still humour.

Taxi drivers are owed giant apologies by so many groups, it’s hard to keep track any more.

I have read so many ridiculous, misguided, inaccurate and plain pathetic media articles about Uber in the past 4 years, I am at risk of becoming inured to the lunacy. I’ve lobbied politicians and pleaded with cops. I’ve debated family members and friends. I’ve pestered media members until they ran away from me.

Their minds are impenetrable; people want so desperately to believe you can get something for nothing, you can’t overcome their magical thinking.

We should never give up thinking skeptically, though, and challenging the lunacy; because what happened to taxi drivers could happen to anyone in any industry. The corruption and massive breach of business and political ethics that have infected the vehicle for hire industry can – and will – affect EVERY industry in future. Uber’s business model and philosophy is a cancer that must be removed from commerce.

Cabbies, unfortunately, have been the canaries in the coal mine. I’m so sorry.

 First, on behalf of women, I apologize to taxi drivers.

It appears that Uber’s terrible, horrible, very bad year was triggered by a blog post published in February by Susan Fowler, a female engineer at Uber. Her treatment was so egregious that her recounting of it set in motion a chain of events that forced CEO Travis Kalanick to resign.

What, you may ask, could possibly have happened to motivate Uber to send Arianna Huffington off on a fact-finding mission and hire former US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate its toxic culture?

Well, this woman’s boss sent her an online message saying he would like to sleep with her. Instead of replying “Fuck you,” or even just “No,” or perhaps taking documentary evidence in the form of a printed chat message to a lawyer, she went to Human Resources, which did not help her. She was sad. She did not quit, though.

The next event, in a display of sexual discrimination so breathtakingly cruel I cry just thinking about it, Uber bought leather jackets for a team of male engineers, but they did not buy any for the women.

I think that largely, consumers do not realize that taxi drivers whose incomes are destroyed are not like workers being laid off from an office or a factory. Every one of these owner/operators pays for their own car and all expenses including commercial insurance. A man who puts an Accessible vehicle on the road already owes about $80,000 before he picks up his first fare.

I contrast these dire circumstances with those of cab drivers whose stories I have heard over the past four years: one driver I met had his own apartment in spring of 2014. By summer, he was sleeping on a friend’s couch. By fall, he was homeless.

I wish the legal, licensed taxi drivers who’ve had their lives decimated by Uber got even the tiniest percentage of the media attention female engineers get when propositioned or deprived of leather jackets – but nobody cares. Not even Susan Fowler, who is clearly completely comfortable with the thought of wrecking the lives of thousands of law-abiding cab drivers and their families, but doesn’t have the guts to say “no” to a lecherous boss. I am sorry for the pain she was content to cause taxi drivers, and I am sorry we are even the same sex.

Second, cab drivers are owed an apology by technology writers at every outlet that covers Uber.

These writers are supposed to be smart and prescient and have their finger on the pulse of all the trends which are going to affect us in the years ahead. In fact, they are so out of touch with business reality that they shouldn’t even be allowed to predict whether VHS VCRs will overtake Betamax, or whether online music shopping might be more popular than vinyl records.

Here’s a quote from a ReCode article on self-driving cars written by Johana Bhuiyan:

“Uber’s future depends greatly on solving self-driving. It’s what will keep the ride-hail company relevant as more automakers produce their own autonomous vehicles. But taking drivers out of the equation would also increase the company’s profits: Self-driving cars give Uber 100 percent of the fare, the company would no longer have to subsidize driver pay and the cars can run nearly 24 hours a day.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Let’s just skip over the fact that Uber has NEVER turned a profit, and is on track to lose more than $3 billion in 2017.

Uber doesn’t own, or maintain, or insure, ANY cars.

The cars are owned by the drivers, who absorb every dollar of the cost of maintaining them no matter how much or how little revenue they generate.

Imagine what Uber’s bottom line would look like if, in addition to buying leather jackets for female engineers, they also had to purchase, insure and maintain their own cars. And then pay drivers. Uber’s business model is based upon persuading car owners to share their cars with Uber, while those drivers assume 100% of the risk of the business. While this appears to be far too futuristic a concept for a tech writer to grasp, P.T. Barnum was able to sum it up succinctly over 100 years ago: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

9 determined men slept outside for 4 nights hoping to attract attention to their fight against Uber. One man, Huq, had a heart attack and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. Media on scene did not feel that was worth reporting.

Third, the mainstream media.

There aren’t enough column inches in Taxi News for me to recount the ways in which the mainstream media missed the boat on Uber.

I’ll just focus my comment on one recurring inaccuracy which is repeated in almost every article I read about Uber around the globe (England, Australia, Canada, the US, India and various Asian and African nations): how fairly or unfairly Uber “pays” its drivers.

“Uber doesn’t pay drivers!” I groan every time. “Drivers pay Uber! The driver does all the work, invests all the time, pays all the vehicle maintenance, and gives Uber 25 per cent of the money he earns. Without drivers, Uber has nothing. The drivers are Uber’s only source of revenue. Uber doesn’t pay drivers; drivers pay Uber!”

If they don’t understand that, they don’t understand anything about Uber. Why would we trust anything else they report? I am sorry we can no longer trust the mainstream media on much of anything.

Fourth, politicians.

Where to start? The betrayal of the taxi industry by politicians around the globe has been complete, quick and starkly hypocritical.

From John Tory in Toronto to David Cameron in England to Daniel Andrews in Australia, politicians who are either air-headed or corrupt just rolled over backward for Uber, re-writing or eliminating safety standards that have been decades and millions of dollars in the making and shredding the social contract with drivers that supported consumer protection.

Nobody puts it better than Hamilton taxi driver and writer Hans Wienhold:

“All of the most expensive elements of a secure taxi industry were never about safety at all. Now we see clearly that none of these things ever had anything to do with safety: they were just power grabs and cash grabs. No one will ever buy the politicians’ BS again.”

Finally, consumers.

People like cheap, there’s no arguing that.

Behrouz Kahmsa and Asafo Addai fought long and hard at City Hall, to no avail. Asafo eventually sold his taxi plate and left the industry, which is exceedingly unfortunate as he represents the exact kind of intelligent, dedicated man of integrity the city WANTS to be driving. I was so sad when I heard the news. He has moved on to a career as a truck driver.

When Uber first arrived, there was much ado about cartoon cars on cell phone screens and free ice cream and free puppy cuddles and hot women drivers.

Really, though, what it all comes down to is that Uber is cheaper than taxis, and people like cheap.

For the first two years after Uber arrived we read lots of stories about free water and candies in the car and happy grandmothers driving for extra cash.

When the first stories of sexual assault started showing up, a little dark cloud appeared on the horizon.

When an uninsured Uber driver killed a 6 year old girl in San Francisco, concerns were raised.

When London, England announced they were averaging almost one sexual assault per week and Londoners began referring to Uber as “rape roulette,” things began looking serious.

And then, when a woman in Texas was made a paraplegic in an accident in an uninsured Uber, people sat up and took notice.

Back in the day, when I was reading dozens of articles per day about Uber around the globe as part of my job, I felt some sympathy for these people.

Now, I confess, sympathy has evaporated. Now, when I come across complaints about Uber in my Twitter feed (“My Uber driver refused my service dog! My Uber driver left me at roadside! My Uber driver showed up at my apartment and told me he has feelings for me!”) I tend to reply sarcastically, “But you saved some money, so it’s all good, right?”

I particularly love the fact that there is a campaign underway by some women right now to get security cameras in Uber vehicles….now, consumers want to combine “cheap” with “safe.” They want it all; but as Austin Powers would say, “Some things just aren’t in the cards, baby.”

So on behalf of women, tech writers, media members and politicians, I apologize to all honest, law-abiding taxi drivers. You deserved better from everyone, and we let you down.

I’m so sorry.

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