Saturday, 12 August 2017

Getting Social About Her Abuse In The Canadian Forces


A slighty different version of this was written for my Huffington Post blog

By Stephen Weir

I spent the 80s and early 90s working for a company that designed, built and marketed weapons and defense systems to the military.  I was often called upon to interact with military leaders at classified trade shows, product demonstrations and, of course, the never ending plant tours (The military Dog and Pony shows).

In all my time on the job I never once helped with a Canadian Forces visit that included a high-ranking female officer.  The business of buying multi-million dollar defense systems was a Man’s World, after all, women weren’t allowed to lead troops onto the battlefield (although some NATO allies were more enlightened).
Sandra Perronn  Toronto park - sweir photo
I left that world in 1993, and it wasn’t until last month that I actually met a senior female combat officer from the Canadian Forces.  I was asked to escort the Gatineau based writer to a TV interview here in Toronto and of course that meant we got to talk … a lot. Major Sandra Perron is now retired  (she left the Army just about when I left Litton Industries). And, now I understand why, when I was on the defense hardware beat, Army was a synonym for The Boys Club.

This is Sandra Perron's story.  As Canada's first female infantry officer, a decorated and highly commended member of the legendary Van Doos and a veteran of peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia, Perron had much to be proud of. But, if you read her new autobiography, operating in the Yugoslavian war zone was a walk in the park compared to being a female officer in Canada.

She was raped almost immediately after enlisting. Her brothers-at-arms regularly hazed her, sometimes violently.  You may remember seeing a 1992 picture of her that was front page news across Canada. It was secretly taken of her during a Prisoner Of War training exercise – It was a cold winter, she was tied to a tree, beaten and left for hours in the snow.  Perron said it was all part of her training and was okay with what happened but that photo was seen as a living example of systemic abuse against female Canadian officers.

Sandra Perron’s military struggles (and successes) are written about in detail in her new memoir, Out Standing in the Field. The book was published in April and early in the New Year will be available in French.

 “There were blips of indications that things were not right, but I accepted them knowing that I was in an environment that was male dominated and that it was just [a gap] I had to bridge, a road I had to pave as I went. It never struck me until I left the military that there were so many things that happened to me that were wrong."

“This story was painful for me to write, it took me 25 years to work up the courage to tell my story,” she told me.  “That is what took so long. It took two years to write the manuscript and a good year and a half before I sent it out to publishing houses.  (Watch Sharon Perron talk about how the book came about in this 3 minute YouTube video by George Socka


"The feedback that I received was that I was still keeping secrets and that I had to dig deeper and share more details of my story. That took awhile. I had to sit down and really revisit a period of my life where there was so much excitement going on but there was also hardships and obstacles in my career.”

On the set of the Social - cell photo sweir

The book is resonating.  At a taping of the afternoon talk show The Social, the almost all female audience (I was the only male in the studio) gave the author an almost unheard of on camera standing ovation!

Pushing Canada to change is what it is all about. As she recently said in a Macleans magazine interview “The military has to evolve. Women are too important to it to not get this right. They cannot afford to not get this right.”

Monday, 3 July 2017

2017 Weston Youth Innovation Award Winner

Anmol Tukrel - photo Ontario Science Centre
Blind? There Is An App For That.

by Stephen Weir
written for Huffington Post

On top of my fridge there is a growing pile of spectacles. Reading glasses. Seeing for distance. Prescription sunglasses.  Half glasses. Safety glasses. Sigh. I guess I always knew that loss of vision was all part of the aging process, but it has happened a bit too soon for my liking.  Luckily a remarkable teenager from Markham has come up with an App that will fix all that.
I am still a long way away  --I hope -- from needing to use an App created by 17 year old student Anmol Tukrel.  He has created iDentifi that helps a visually impaired person identify objects by using a smartphone. The app uses the phone’s camera and artificial intelligence to provide audio identification of objects, brands, colour, facial expressions, handwriting and text.
I caught up to him at the Ontario Science Centre earlier this week while he was being presented with the $2,000 2017 Weston Youth Innovation Award.  I was way in over my head when the science crowd started talking about what Turkrel’s iDentifi actually does for the visually impaired.
Seeing my confusion, he broke it down gently for me. I will paraphrase what he said. Think about going to a store and taking a can of pop from the shelf.  You know it feels like a can of soda but, is it a Pepsi or a Coke?  Instead of trying to find a store clerk to tell you what brand it is, just point your smart phone at the can. In a few seconds it will tell you – vocally – what you have in your hand. It would say something like,“this is a can of Pepsi.”

We talked a few days later and Anmol filled me in a bit more.  This free App uses the phone’s camera to take a picture of an object and, by using AI, is able to compare the object with a data base containing millions of photographic images, and subsequently describe out loud in English (or 27 other languages) what exactly you are looking at!
“The App has an extensive database that powers its recognition capabilities, and can recognize virtually any object, brand, colour, facial expression, handwriting and text,” explained Turkell.“In the future I hope to add even more objects and brands to the database.”
“I am going to start at Stanford University this FalI, but until then I will continue to work on the App throughout this summer. In the long-term I hope to add new languages, support object recognition in video mode, and integrate (Apple’s intelligent personal assistant) Siri so that visually impaired individuals do not have to interact with the phone and can simply use voice commands.”
Today iDentifi is being used in 96 countries by a growing list of local, national and international organizations serving the visually impaired. They have shared iDentifi amongst their members through email, social media, meetings, and word of mouth. Anyone can get the App for free through I-Tunes.
Still clear as mud?  As part of winning the Weston Youth Innovation Award for young Canadian innovators there will soon be an animation movie on display at Science Centre to showcase iDentifi.
This App isn’t going to get rid of my growing fridge top collection of eyewear. So don’t be shocked if the next time you hear me in the supermarket asking Siri loudly,“Is it the “Real Thing?”

2017 Weston Youth Innovation Award

Tuesday, 16 May 2017


Book Review
In The Black: My Life

By B. Denham Jolly

An edited version of this review appeared in Huffington Post today

In the Black, a new autobiography by activist businessman and radio pioneer Denham Jolly, is going to have members of Toronto's white community seeing red. It might have Black Lives Matter soldiers taking names and making notes.
"To the white readers of this book, I have to stress that for Black people the basic and continuing infringements of our rights are not mere distractions. Canadians like to congratulate themselves over our diversity, but … " Denham Jolly told me when we talked about his early days in Toronto. Quoting from his just published book, he explains that discriminatory policing (from carding to driving while Black) "remain part of our day-to-day life and cast a long shadow over it."
From time-to-time over the past four decades, Jolly and I have crossed paths. He doesn't remember me, but I will never forget him. Handsome. Imposing. Strongly Opinionated (he writes that Toronto Mayor John Tory should be impeached for going back on his campaign promise to the Black community to end carding in the city). When we first met I was on a Joe job that took me to FLOW FM, (his radio station – Canada’s first Black owned radio station)to pick up a donation for the Caribana festival. Before my coat was off, or had taken a seat, he told me what was wrong with the annual street parade and what should be done to fix it.
I can't recall his exact words but I am sure it had something to do with how Canada's establishment was "fucking over" the volunteer driven Canadian Caribbean street extravaganza. "Tons of cash is handed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario and to the National Ballet, which generates 1/84th the amount of economic activity that Caribana brings to the city (of Toronto). But government support to Caribana continues to be minuscule compared to what is given to the National Ballet. It (Caribana) is the greatest cultural event in the city."
I have supplied PR support to North America's premiere Carnival festival on and off for almost 20 years and his Toronto radio station FLOW - Canada's first urban (industry term for Black) station - had pledged to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission when he got his first broadcast license, that he would support Caribana and other worthy community events. He was true to his words for as long as he owned FLOW.
Other encounters? Now and then I’d pick up celebs staying around the city, including his Days Inn Hotel, and escort them to FLOW. Carnival performers, Caribbean chefs and Black authors – there was an endless line of famous people wanting to be interviewed by on-air staff including talent show host Farley Flex and CP24 anchor Nathan Downer.
I lived a couple blocks from him in Cabbagetown and often saw him on the street. I guess if he hadn't sold them off, I might one day soon end up staying in one of his nursing homes.
" I am not a literary man, I couldn't have written this book without the help of journalist Peter MacFarlane," he told me. " I think of myself as a serial entrepreneur and this book is very much about business ... my business."
Jolly is a highly successful man.  Born in Jamaica he came to Canada 60 years ago to study at Guelph's College of Agriculture.  He went on to study at the Truro Agriculture School and finally Montreal's McGill University. He felt, and with justification, that there were more opportunities and less cultural striation in Canada in the Fifties than in colonial Jamaica.
When he graduated from McGill the government told him he had to leave when his student visa expired. He returned to Jamaica to do research on the ackee plant and to save enough money to apply to immigrate back to Canada! His triumphant return to the Great White North only happened after a chance encounter with a Canadian High Commission employee at a Jamaican rum party!
One of his first jobs in Toronto was teaching high school by day in the poshest part of town (Forest Hill), and managing his just acquired boarding house at night in a not so posh ‘hood’. He acquired property, lived frugally and his fortunes grew!
He moved briefly to Sault St Marie to teach science. In the Soo he met a young white nurse, moved back to Toronto with her and married.  Jolly continued to acquire rooming houses. He also branched out into nursing homes and medical testing facilities.
He modernized the business of nursing homes not just in Toronto and Mississauga, but in Texas as well.  Jolly soon also became the publisher of the iconic, but now closed, Black Contrast Newspaper.
Almost everything he touched did well, except for his brief career as a Fuller Brush salesman ("I ended up with a closet full of brushes"). He even owned an ill-fated Caribbean sailing ship - the not so Jolly Dolphin.
His burning desire to own a radio station that would play Black music and be the voice of the Caribbean Canadian people was a 12-year chunk of his life. He blames political interference and white privilege for the setbacks he had to overcome before FLOW went on the air back in 2001.
According to In The Black, Liberal politicians were publically supportive of Jolly’s radio station dream, but behind closed doors worked against him to help the CBC and other stations get the licenses he sought.  "Liberal politicians are dishonest, they told me I was going to get a license but gave it away to a country and western radio station," explained to me. "Campaign left and rule to the right – they made Mulroney look good"
His business smarts came from his Father Cappy (short for Capital) Jolly. Cappy gave his son Duddy-Kravitz-like advice which he follows to this day  - "Don't work for anyone but yourself. And buy property."
The book is frustrating in that Cappy plays only a minor role in this story. We don't know much more about Cappy, nor his four sisters and brothers, nor his wife Carol, their daughter Nicole and twin sons Michael and Kevin.  His divorce is a single paragraph and there is scant reference to Janice Williams, the new love of his life.

 B. Denham Jolly

Odd for a very private man involved in the communication business to say so little about himself in this - his self titled life's story. It is an autobiography where I suspect the author has kept out all the juicy parts of his 80+ years on the planet. We never learn what is beyond his passion for the world of  business. The curtain is only lifted when Jolly talks about issues of race and equality in Toronto and the people he fought the good fight with - former Minister of State Jean Augustine, Violet Blackman, Caribana’s Charles Roach and Dudley Laws.

It makes for interesting reading to see just how many activist causes Jolly dipped his toes in. He started the Black Business and Professional Association and was a vocal member of a seemingly endless string of action groups and committees.
He talks about demonstrating against the police when a mentally disturbed Black man, Lester Donaldson is shot by an officer in a Toronto rooming house. “After the demonstration, a number of us, including Charlie Roach and Jean Augustine, went to a meeting called by Dudley Laws to launch a new organization, the Black Action Defense Committee.”
“BADC,” he writes, “was formed to fight against this sort of police killing.  I was named with fifteen others as part of the founding group, but in this case the moving force really was Dudley Laws.”
“ Sure, there probably is a file with my name on it,” said Jolly when I asked if the police investigated him as much as they did Dudley Laws. “In 1991 the police were clearly obsessed with nailing the hides of uppity Blacks to the wall.”
“BADC marched to the US Consulate on University Avenue (in Toronto) to underline that you could find the same brutality against Blacks in Canada that we had seen in the U.S.”
As time passed Jolly’s time was spent more in keeping his radio station socially responsible than in marching in the street. He was named to the YMCA and the Toronto International Film Festival and he was cited for his cultural contributions when he won the Black Media Pioneer Award and the African Canadian Lifetime Achievement Award.
--> Two months ago, just as ECW Press was publishing this autobiography, the city of Toronto honoured the man by naming a new road Jolly Way. Located near the southwest corner of Midland and Ellesmere Avenues, the street is meant to be a tribute to a man who hasn’t always been happy in Canada but has always been loud, proud and forever Jolly!