A selection of articles I wrote for Western University’s MA in Journalism program – 2009-2010.
Political Profile: Irene Mathyssen
By Laura Schober
At 12-years-old, Irene Mathyssen’s political instincts began to blossom. While watching the NDP Convention on television for the first time, the young woman had a life-changing moment of clarity.
“I thought, ‘I’d really like to be a member of Parliament,’ but I didn’t know how that happened,” recalls Mathyssen, her brown eyes twinkling at the memory.
“It was magic on the television.”
Now, 58-year-old Mathyssen is MP for the London-Fanshawe riding, a low- to middle-income area of London, Ontario. She says her experience growing up in a family that lived paycheque to paycheque wasn’t always easy, but it made her realize how much she wanted to work in a career that would help others overcome poverty and social injustice.
“I know what it’s like to be underhoused,” said Mathyssen.
She grew up with her parents and three siblings in a small, four-room house on London’s Clark Side Road. Mathyssen says her upbringing has allowed her to identify with the frustrations underhoused kids go through, from not having a place to do their homework to the lack of privacy.
Despite the obstacles she faced growing up, her parents always encouraged her to work hard in school.
“I was fortunate in as much as there was an expectation that I would seek post secondary education and that I would do something that would give me opportunity.”
After obtaining her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1975, Mathyssen worked as a high school English teacher in London. In 1989, she became president of the Middlesex NDP riding association and ran for member of provincial parliament (in the former riding of London-Middlesex) a year later. In a surprise victory, Mathyssen beat out incumbent Liberal MPP Doug Reycraft by 520 votes, joining Bob Rae’s NDP government.
Her support for Rae’s Social Contract, an initiative that implemented a wage freeze for civil workers and sanctioned mandatory unpaid days of leave for civil servants, was unpopular with public union members across Ontario.
Mathyssen said she was aware that her decision to support the legislation could cost her votes in the next election, but she felt obligated to do what was best at the time to help reduce a huge provincial budget shortfall.
“At some point, you have to say the country, the province, and the people matter a whole lot more than my political future.”
Bob Rae, now Liberal MP for the Toronto Centre riding, acknowledges the Social Contract was a “difficult choice” for the NDP to execute.
“It wasn’t a question of choosing between good or bad things, but rather a question of having to choose between bad things and less bad things.”
He says that Mathyssen was always a team player and a “very fierce partisan member of the NDP.”
“She was not somebody to strike out for her own reasons,” said Rae.
In 1995, the NDP was defeated and Mathyssen resumed her teaching career. But she still had a lot of political fire left in her and ran in the 1997, 1999, and 2003 provincial elections, as well as the 2004 federal election. She lost all four.
Mathyssen refused to give up because she felt the local elected representatives on the federal and provincial levels were not doing enough to help people in their ridings.
“I’d go out in the community and folks would say, ‘we’d try to get help and we couldn’t get help,’ or people were still calling me at home asking for casework help,” she said.
“I just kept running in the belief that I would win again and I could resume the work that I really wanted to do.”
Mathyssen returned to politics after winning the 2006 federal general election, becoming MP for London-Fanshawe and the first NDP MP in the city’s history. Since being re-elected in 2008, she has tabled legislation to secure a “buy Canadian” policy on government spending and secured the city of London a $17 million federal investment towards infrastructure within her riding.
Andrea Horwath, MPP for Hamilton Centre and leader of the Ontario NDP party, has worked with Mathyssen on a number of projects and both are passionate about women’s issues. Recently they worked together to raise money for a women’s healthcare clinic in London – the only one in the city – and a youth shelter in Strathroy.
Horwath remembers attending a fundraiser that honoured Mathyssen’s contributions to the community at Fanshawe College in London.
“The people that spoke at the microphone about Irene talked about her integrity, they talked about her hard work, they talked about her commitment, they talked about the fact that it was never about Irene,” said Horwath.
“It was always about what she could do to help the people and to make things better for folks.”
Colleen Canon, district president of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation, used to teach with Mathyssen at Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School in London. Canon says that Mathyssen was involved with several student clubs that promoted women’s rights, social justice, and multicultural issues.
“I’ve never known anybody quite as dedicated to these causes, she’s very passionate…she walks the walk, she talks the talk.”
Mathyssen’s career has not been free from controversy. In 2007, she accused Conservative MP James Moore of looking at images of “scantily clad” women on his laptop during a Parliamentary session at the House of Commons. She said his actions “disrespected women” and made a formal statement questioning his actions. It turned out Moore had been looking at pictures of his girlfriend. Mathyssen later retracted her statement and apologized to Moore.
On a federal level, Mathyssen is most proud of the work she undertook in 2006 to prevent proposed funding cuts to agencies that provide shelter and services to the homeless community, including My Sister’s Place, a support centre for marginalized women in London.
In 1992, Mathyssen was instrumental towards raising funds to support the first women’s shelter in Middlesex County, located in Strathroy. For her, it was the highlight of her career in provincial politics.
“Despite the fact there was a recession and money was at a premium, we built it because it was pivotal towards saving women’s lives.”
Irene has one daughter, Lindsay, 31, and has been happily married to her husband, Keith, a retired industrial mechanic for 35 years.
Wearable art in London
By Laura Schober
Ardath Finnbogason-Hill says the two years she spent living in the Caribbean were enough to inspire her creative journey into the world of wearable art.
While her husband taught business at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad during the early 1970s, the London-based fibre artist began purchasing colourful fabrics and started to design her own clothing.
“It was that welcoming aspect of the people in Trinidad and that everyone was expected to be creative,” said Finnbogason-Hill. “No matter what was happening, there was always this air of colour in the way they dressed, the way they spoke, the way they smiled.”
Finnbogason-Hill was just one of 15 vendors who displayed their creations of fibre or textile art at The Wearable Art Show exhibit November 20 to 21 at Museum London.
“Wearable art is anything that can be worn, that isn’t mass produced. We’re looking at things that are done and handcrafted,” said Sophie Skaith, president of the volunteer committee to Museum London.
The term, wearable art, refers to clothing or jewellery that can be worn, or put on display in the home as an artistic statement.
During the exhibit, Finnbogason-Hill showcased her collection of intricately handwoven shawls, called Wisdom Wraps, worn for “empowerment, guidance and reassurance.”
Her Icelandic heritage is a major source of inspiration for her creations. In August 1989, she presented Iceland’s first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, with one of her handmade shawls during Islendingadagurinn, an annual Icelandic festival held in Gimli, Manitoba.
Though wearable art may seem like a new trend, Kirsty Robertson, a professor in the visual arts department at the University of Western Ontario, says wearable art has been around since the early 20th century.
“There were artists in the 1920s, like the Russian constructivists, who were making costumes that were also art. Then there were other artists, like the Bauhaus, who were trying to combine daily life with art.”
Within the last 10 years, wearable art has experienced a surge of popularity amongst artists and designers. And in times of economic downturn, Robertson says many fibre or textile artists tend to gravitate towards creating a more sustainable form of art.
“Certainly, there are a lot of people who have turned to making their own clothes because they feel that it’s more frugal or they’ve turned to their own clothes because they want to have clothing that is made in their own area or made locally,” Robertson said.
Though women are predominately makers of wearable art, Robertson notes an increasing number of men are beginning to take up textile art as a hobby.
Wearable art vendor Christopher Lake, 32, never expected to be an artist, but found he had a talent for making flameworked glass pendant and bead jewellery. Lake sells his jewellery at a number of art stores in south-western Ontario, including Museum London’s gift shop.
“I like to get inspired for shapes and pieces at art galleries, shows, reading art books and things like that,” said Lake.
Lake takes pride in creating wearable art that is both practical and artistic. Jeanne-Marie Urbach, a fellow artist and wearable art show vendor, feels the same way.
Urbach, 55, is an artist and educational assistant who has found some of her favourite fabric materials while travelling, including colourful sloop bags and denim pieces in Norway, Japan, and Argentina.
At the art show, it isn’t hard to miss her custom made bras – one is embroidered with geckos and the second bra on display sports large, woven eyes, adorned with black fringe trim for eyelashes.
However, it is Urbach’s “sunflower” cape that embodies the trend of wearable art because it can be worn as clothing or put on display in the home. A work in progress, the multi-coloured cape in gold, teal blue, and dark green, will feature over $150 worth of buttons once it is finished.
“To me, it’s a puzzle. I like the challenge,” said Urbach.
The Wearable Art Show was held in conjunction with JASS London, a juried art show and sale at Museum London. The proceeds raised from both events will be used to purchase new works of art for the museum.
London’s Significant Woodlands
By Laura Schober
Citizen activists and environmental groups in the Forest City are celebrating the protection of London’s trees after a November court ruling that overturned an appeal by local developers.
“The ability to designate something as a significant woodland has now just been made easier,” said Julie Ryan, executive director of ReForest London, a tree-planting group that engages city residents, groups, and businesses.
“I think Londoners love trees and it shows that it does pay off to invest and to fight for these kinds of things.”
In September 2006, the Ontario Municipal Board revised the guidelines of the city’s OPA 403, changing the three high scores that classify an environmentally significant woodland into one high score. As a result, the decision allowed an additional 800 hectares of woodlands in London to be protected.
Over 10,000 trees are planted per year in London by groups such as ReForest London, Friends of the Coves Subwatershed, and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. ReForest London says an estimated 7.8 percent of the city is covered in trees, which is well below the recommended 30 per cent tree cover for a woodland to be considered sustainable. Moreover, the group says that replanting efforts can be wiped out within a day when a giant woodland is cleared by developers.
Under the new OMB ruling made on November 26, 2009, the decision allows the remaining woodlands to be protected from a major clearing.
But local development companies objected to the changes and the switch caused developers, led by London Exeter Development Inc., to appeal the changes made by the Ontario Municipal Board.
As of press time, the London Development Institute, Sifton Properties, and Drewlo Holdings declined to comment on the issue.
According to citizen activist and former city councillor, Sandy Levin, the divisional court of London overturned the appeal because they ruled the Ontario Municipal Board was correct in its initial 2006 decision.
“It was a great victory for people in London who care about protecting woodlands,” said Levin, who hired a lawyer and organized community meetings to support the City of London.
“Traditionally the development industry in this town is very aggressive and not particularly cooperative with the municipality in terms of issues that have a public interest like protecting woodlands.”
Levin says the decision is step forward for London and that he hopes citizen activists like himself won’t have to become involved again in the city’s environmental matters.
“Trees have an intrinsic value, along with an economic value, and just because they can be cut down and things can be built on it, doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of protection…it really proves that municipalities have the ability and the power to protect them,” he said.
The city’s OPA 403 outlines that woodlands are “complex ecosystems of different tree species, shrubs, ground vegetation and soil complexes that provide habitats for many plants and animals.”
Significant woodlands include any wooded area over four hectares that receives a single high score in one of the twenty-two different categories outlined in the OPA 403.
Bonnie Bergsma, city ecologist planner, said that the criteria for these categories are measured to evaluate the significance of the various features and functions of the woodlands.
The criterion includes characteristics such as the area’s proximity to a watercourse or wetland, maturity of the forest, age of trees, and the diversity of significant wildlife habitat.
After urban growth areas of the city were annexed in 1996, subwatershed studies were run to identify environmentally significant areas. These studies were carried out over a period of ten years and looked at characteristics such as location, width, composition, and use of ecological buffers that would be needed to protect the natural heritage areas from development impacts on bordering lands.
In 1999, Official Plan Amendment 88 determined that certain wooded areas in the city would be studied for “environmental review,” a classification for lands that were subject to further study to see if they required city protection. OPA88 also established the components that made up the City’s Natural Heritage System and environmental protection policies.
Bergsma is also the primary author of the guidelines for significant woodlands that were brought up in court. The criteria she helped develop were evaluated by planners, biologists, ecologists, and representatives of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Conservation Authorities.
Bergsma estimates about 80 percent of the city’s 200 vegetation patches are associated with a hydrological feature or stream corridor. Therefore, the majority of woodlands will end up being significant under the current guidelines.
“We’ve gone through this other evolutionary process many, many years since the subwatershed study (1996) and basically come to the same conclusion on both studies, which is that these comprise a significant component of our natural heritage system and should be protected,” she said.
Bergsma testified in court that the forest coverage would gradually be reduced in size from eight percent to five percent if the city continued to use the three high score approach as a measure. However, that is still well below the recommended 30 per cent tree cover for a woodland to be considered sustainable, according to ReForest London.
Other municipalities in Ontario also implement the one high score approach, according to Bergsma, including Halton, Hamilton, and Middlesex County.
She says it is important for London’s residents to distinguish between significant woodlands and environmentally significant areas.
Environmentally significant areas, such as The Coves and the Sifton Bog, are owned by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and by the City of London. These seven areas of the city are fully protected from developers. On the other hand, significant woodlands are designated areas protected by the city only.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are keeping a close eye on what steps the city will be taking next to ensure the protection of significant woodlands.
Jaclyn Goodwillie, project manager at Friends of the Coves Subwatershed, spearheads a number of rehabilitation projects to preserve the Coves and environmentally significant areas in the city. The Coves, located in south London, are a series of three ponds that house aquatic wildlife, as well as insects, birds, turtles, and deer.
Friends of the Coves have a team of dedicated volunteers, ranging in age from high school students to seniors, who work to extend wooded areas by running tree planting projects and rural rehabilitation projects in city parks.
Though Goodwillie said Friends of the Coves is pleased that the guidelines outlined in OPA 403 will move forward, she said there is another issue of contention for some environmental activists in the city – a number of pathways for cyclists and hikers are being planned and that involves the cutting down of hazard trees.
“There’s a lot of push for them. Seniors want them, the cyclists want them,” said Goodwillie.
“I think they all need to be assessed for what they are, because it might be alright in some cases.”
While environmental groups and activists are savouring London’s victory for now, the battle isn’t over just yet. The group of developers, represented by lawyer Barry Card, say they will continue to fight the OMB ruling.
Kipps Lane Strategy aims to reduce stigma surrounding poverty-stricken neighbourhood
By Laura Schober
In an effort to improve the reputation of one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods, a group of approximately 20 to 30 Kipps Lane residents are working together to change the misconceptions surrounding their community.
The murder of a teen at a Kipps Lane shopping plaza in February brought to light recurring problems that continue to plague the neighbourhood, including youth gang violence, vandalism, and illegal drug activity.
Karen Oldham, manager of Community Development for the City of London, oversees the resident working group.
“From our perspective, it’s to make it a stronger neighbourhood, to build community capacity and leadership in the neighbourhood, and to create a safe, healthy neighbourhood,” said Oldham.
“We wanted to come into the neighbourhood and leave with no footprints.”
In November 2008, the resident working group became a part of The Kipps Lane Strategy through the City of London’s Strengthening Neighbourhoods Initiative, a pilot project with a goal to establish permanent resident working groups in neighbourhoods across London.
The resident working group was created in response to a door-to-door City of London survey that took place between April and May 2008. The 30 minute survey engaged 1024 people out of the 9000 residents who live in Kipps Lane. The survey found that residents wanted more parks and recreational services, followed by a need for the establishment of neighbourhood safety programs.
Of the survey, 54 per cent of respondents said they felt safe in the neighbourhood, while 28 per cent said they did not. 18 per cent of those surveyed did not respond or were unsure.
Oldham said the survey also found the majority of people chose to live in Kipps Lane because of affordability. The 2006 census listed the average income at $40,490 for the neighbourhood, below the London average of $56,670. According to the Kipps Lane survey, many residents are immigrants, students, or single parent families, some of whom are unemployed or on disability.
From the data, it was evident that the formation of a resident working group would help improve the community morale of Kipps Lane.
Stanislav Rajic, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Western Ontario, is a resident group member who helped analyze the results of the Kipps Lane assessment survey.
Rajic, 33, says he feels very safe in the neighbourhood, having lived there for 11 years. He acknowledges he is in the minority, adding he knows of other residents who feel Kipps Lane does not harbour a safe environment.
Julia Herrick, 29, is one of them. She has lived at 754 Kipps Lane for over four years, in an apartment building she says is the “black hole” of the neighbourhood’s problems.
“I hate living here. My car’s been broken into, my tires have been slashed, my license plate has been stolen.”
“There is no sense of community here,” said Herrick with an incredulous laugh.
London Police say that despite the stigma attached to Kipps Lane, the crime in the neighbourhood is comparable to other parts of the city.
“The Kipps Lane Crew has been relatively quiet over the last few months,” said Sgt. Greg Mayea, detective-in-charge of the Youth Crime Unit, in regards to one of the neighbourhood’s most notorious youth gangs.
“The crime in the Kipps Lane area is no worse than crime in other areas of London, where there are similar types of neighbourhoods,” said Mayea.
This fall, the resident working group will unveil a Neighbourhood Action Plan to the Community and Protective Services Committee at City Hall. Taking into account the survey results, the Plan was created by the working group and will incorporate specific guidelines to improve key priorities such as safety, crime, and community engagement.
“We have city staff helping to facilitate the action plan building process. Under safety, their plan includes involving neighbourhood watch to increase the number of watches,” Oldham said.
But David Dimitrie, resident and founder of the Kipps Lane Community Association, thinks the action plan is being introduced too late in the process.
“We were overjoyed when they brought this in. But they did this thing backwards,” he said. “I know about the importance of research, but at the same time, could we not have worked on the mission and action plan two years ago?”
In May 2007, the Kipps Lane Strategy was endorsed by City Council at a public meeting for interested residents who wanted to help improve their community.
Oldham said the survey was undertaken to better understand the most urgent needs of the neighbourhood, adding relationship building with residents was a crucial first step in gaining trust for the creation of an action plan.
“We want to find those community leaders and champions who are going to be able to bring together people and mobilize a community, to make it a better place to live.”