The Ministry of Education has revised its criteria for what constitutes an underprivileged school and how much food aid they should get. The Ministry’s food aid program aims to help high schools from underprivileged communities provide subsidized meals and snacks. Although the total budget of $7.7 million remains unchanged, many schools, particularly in outer regions, have seen their allowance plummet or disappear.

The Samares School Board in Lanaudière, for example, went from receiving $190 226 to $7081 in two school years. In the Eastern Quebec, the Chic-Chocs School Board went from $33 090 this year to $5 269 for next year. Chic-Chocs representative Marie-Noëlle Dion called the situation deplorable, particularly for three of their schools that will have to do without food aid all together.

The both the entire Outaouais and Laurentides region are now devoid of high schools providing subsidized meals.

The matter was the subject of a heated debate on Wednesday in the National Assembly where Education Minister Sébastien Proulx tried to defend the government’s policies.

“The money for the food aid program was maintained and indexed,” hammered Proulx, “it is meant for our most underprivileged schools, and that has not changed. If the rules have changed in the last few years, it was to correct inequalities in the sense that in some communities there were privileged schools receiving food aid.”

To which the official spokesperson for education of the opposition Alexandre Cloutier replied: “For the entire region of Outaouais, as of next September, there is zero funding! Are you saying there is not one kid who goes to school on an empty stomach in Outaouais?”

André Villeneuve, MNA of Berthier, piled on: “In Lanaudière, it’s four high schools, it’s hundreds of kids who will go to school on en empty stomach!

Where is the money going?

The Ministry determines the amount of food aid it will give to each school depending on where it ranks on the government’s indexes of deprivation. Those indexes reflect the proportion of students from families who are below the low-income threshold as well as their socio-economic background, which takes into account the level of education of the mother and whether or not the parents are employed.

Minister Proulx said that the calculations have been adjusted to focus on the schools that score 9 or 10 out of 10 on these indexes. At the time of publication, FTB is waiting for specifications from the Ministry about the nature of these adjustments and the number of schools that supposedly benefited from them.

Most of the schools scoring 9s and 10s are presumably in Montreal, where child poverty is particularly glaring. A recent study by Tonino Esposito of Université de Montréal and Catherine Roy of McGill found that sixteen of the 30 neighborhoods with the most underprivileged children in the province are in Montreal. Montréal-Nord is at the very top of the chart.

In any case, many children who were only a year ago considered underprivileged enough to get access to food aid are now considered as fortunate enough to do without it. Professionals and politicians are accusing the government of robbing Peter to pay Paul in education, while they break the bank for lobbies and corporations. Or, As Cloutier put it : How can a Minister who is swimming in budgetary surplus justify this sort of measure?”

* Featured image: École secondaire de L’Île, Outaouais. From HockeyAcademy

Need a bit extra cash? $1000 or more? No need to quit your day job, or do anything illegal. You can even earn the money while sitting on a couch watching TV. Sounds good? Maybe too good? Perhaps you have already been tempted.

Posters in the metro and ads in local newspapers offer you the chance to earn good money while making the world a better place. Behind these ads are pharmaceutical companies like Algorithme Pharma and GCP Trials, recruiting ‘volunteer’ subjects for their clinical drug studies.

Drugs must be tested on humans somewhere between being tested on animals and getting prescribed to real patients, as part of a process that is worryingly called a Stage 1 clinical trial.

The financial compensation for ‘volunteering’ is generous enough to help you think a bit less about any risks. But even if the thought of becoming a human guinea pig makes a lot of people nervous, that has only created a larger demand for volunteers who are either a little more adventurous or in greater need of money.

It’s fair to say that the drug companies who are promoting this paid volunteering for the benefit of humanity and medical advancement are also targeting people’s need for cash in a tight economy. The compensation ranges from $1000 to $2000, which is paid tax-free. The absolute anonymity given to the volunteers means that they could be forgetful about declaring it to any government agencies.

“I try to think about all the sick people waiting for new advancements in drugs. Someone has to do it, it might as well be me.”

As a veteran of over ten or so of these clinical trials, Peter (not his real name) has taken his chances and earned a substantial amount of cash. Still, he feels like he’s filled an important need by participating in biological research.

“I try to think about all the sick people waiting for new advancements in drugs. Someone has to do it, it might as well be me. But I guess it’s not exactly the sort of thing that everyone wants to do, and I wouldn’t even tell my own mother that I did it,” Peter said.

Brave potential subjects would need to be in perfect health before being selected. That is tested during a “screening appointment.”

E-Magine Art/Flickr CC
E-Magine Art/Flickr CC

“That’s an exhaustive medical exam sold to volunteers as a ‘free check up,'” Peter explained. “If there’s anything wrong with you they’ll find it. And that includes checking for the presence of recreational drugs you’ve been using, which will disqualify you automatically.”

Once subjects are cleared and placed on a study they will be confined to the clinic for about 48 hours and closely monitored. But Peter insists that is hardly a hardship.

“It’s for your own safety and it’s actually relaxing. You can do […] basically nothing. […] Watch TV, videos, or bring your laptop and surf the net. […] Lots of volunteers are students who just catch on their studies.”

“One time, they messed up so badly there was blood everywhere because they kept stabbing my arm and missing my vein with the needle.”

But what might seem like a relaxing holiday has a few inconveniences. For example, there are strict restrictions on anything from bedtimes, access to toilets, and control over what you eat. Also the requirement to stay indoors during the study could be a pain for smokers.

But the possibility of getting a little stir crazy is not the biggest inconvenience, especially to those who don’t like needles or the sight of their own blood.

“You’re being tested mainly on the ability of your body to absorb, and eliminate a drug. So you’ll be stuck about 20-30 times with a needle during the stay extracting a total of about a quarter litre of blood,” Peter said.

“They do it with varying degrees of skill. One time, they messed up so badly there was blood everywhere because they kept stabbing my arm and missing my vein with the needle. I screamed until they stopped and so they taped up the arm. Then they started on the other arm.”

If that makes potential volunteers skittish it’s worth noting that accidents, which involve much more than a little extra blood loss, have been documented. In 2006, a group of six volunteers in London, UK took part in a study contracted to pharmaceutical testing firm Parexel International. Shortly after the dosing, the nurses heard the six subjects screaming that heads were “exploding.” Minutes later after falling victim to fainting and severe bloating, all six were carried away to emergency wards with multiple organ failure.

Ethicists concluded afterwards that the subjects in that trial were not fully informed of the risks and that their need for quick cash had been exploited.

“You can be choosy and avoid the more experimental ones. I always stay away from stuff that affects the heart or the brain.”

Peter says he has witnessed volunteers have bad reactions to drugs in a clinic here in Montreal, but he shrugs off such cases as “rare and part of the risk you take.”

“You get all the available information about the drug you are testing before you sign the papers. So you can be choosy and avoid the more experimental ones. I always stay away from stuff that affects the heart or the brain.”

In the end Peter admits that he has stopped doing trials, which he had been doing at the maximum allowable: two or three trials each year. He developed an infection in the arm that was frequently used for drawing blood during trials. “I asked the study doctor if it is dangerous to do a lot of studies. Of course he said no – but he’s working for them.”

So did Peter really think he was doing something meaningful beyond improving his savings by nearly $10,000 in three years?

“Yes,” he says firmly. “But you also have to realise that the drug companies are in business to make big money […]and part of the reason drugs are so expensive is because that they have to pay people like me.”

Featured image by Micah Taylor/Flickr CC.

This post originally appeared on QuietMike.org, republished with permission from the author

The larger than life, fourteen year populist leader of Venezuela Hugo Chavez passed away after a two year bout with cancer last Tuesday. The man who championed himself as a revolutionary and savior of the poor died at the age of 58.

From Pennies

Chavez and his five siblings grew up on their father’s rural teaching salary. With little money and a growing family he soon went to live with his grandparents to try and ease the financial burden. Chavez grew up in a Venezuela ruled by a list of dictators, converting later into a democracy in which the dominant political parties shared power regardless of how Venezuelans voted.

At 17, Chavez joined the military academy with the hopes of playing baseball. An injury kept him from realizing his baseball dreams, but it set in motion his rise to political office. As Venezuela grew increasingly corrupt, Chavez who witnessed the country’s poverty first hand, couldn’t comprehend that despite the country’s vast oil wealth, most Venezuelans had to fight hard just to get by.

In the early 1990’s, Corruption and austerity measures crippled the government with approval ratings below 20%. So, in 1992, Hugo Chavez led a failed coup that resulted in his surrender; however he was allowed to go on national television to inform his comrades to surrender.

During that one minute of airtime he took responsibility for the coup’s failure, the thing is, he did it in a country where no one took responsibility for anything. He served two years in prison only to be released to try and slow his growing popularity.

To President

In 1998 Chavez ran for office for the first time and won with 56% of the vote. He would go on to win three more presidential elections, the last of which he won last October with 54% of total votes. In his first term of two years he traveled the world and won a referendum to change the constitution, laying the foundation in which he hoped to build the country on.

Throughout it all, Chavez never forgot his roots. When he began his first term in 1999, half the population of Venezuela was below the poverty line. Before his last election victory it had dropped from about 50% down to around 30%. More importantly, extreme poverty fell by over 75%.

During his tenure Chavez made a lot of friends and enemies both at home and abroad. At home the poor loved him. He used his country’s vast oil wealth to introduce social programs that include state-run food markets, new public housing, educational programs and free health clinics (he raised health spending from 1% to 7% of GDP alone).

hugoWhat Goes Around, Comes Around

While the poor loved him, the rich despised him. Even though his first term could be considered a centrist administration, the start of the second would change that. Led by wealthy business leader Pedro Carmona, Anti-Chavez military officers supported by the business community (Venezuelan Chambers of Commerce), private media and certain political parties tried to oust him in a coup.

The Coup D’état seemed to work at first. They organized protests in the streets and used it as a screen to overthrow the president. They tried to frame Chavez for violence breaking out in the streets claiming he was using the military to crack down on dissent. It was later revealed it was the coup supporters that were largely responsible for the violence. The coup ultimately failed as the population out in the streets demanded Hugo’s return.

Whenever there is a coup in South America you can be sure that the United States had a part to play. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama and El-Salvador could attest to that claim. It’s no surprise the US was the first country to recognize the Carmona government, but after it lasted less than 48 hours, the US backtracked. The failed coup against Chavez marked the last known attempt by the United States to undermine the will of a foreign populace.

From that point on, Chavez began to speak out against American Imperialism and started to govern from a more radical leftist position. In 2003 the state took over 51% of the country’s oil industry (which it was planning before the coup attempt). He built up his military readiness in anticipation of an American invasion. He also made friends with America’s enemies, namely Iran, Syria and Libya (the enemy of my enemy is my friend as they say).

hugo-chavez-y-fidel-castroIn the End

From the beginning, Chavez set out to help other leftist governments in Central and South America which now make up the bulk of the continent. He founded the Bank of the South with the help of Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. The bank is to be an alternative to the IMF and World Bank which have screwed over some of these countries in the past. Unlike the IMF, there are no political conditions to receive funds. In 2007 alone, Chavez gave $8.8 billion to help development in other Latin American countries.

Like I said, Chavez did have his faults. Aside from allying himself with sometimes brutal dictators, he was known to be on the anti-Semitic side. In fact, half of all Jews reportedly left the country during his time in office. Inflation soared at times, hurting the poor above all and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world peeking in 2010 as the world’s worst.

He was known as “El Comandante” by his admirers. They called him a revolutionary on par with Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar and Fidel Castro.

What you think of the man might depend on where you live and whether you’re rich or poor. In time, history will decide.

“There are elections on September 4th,” I tell Pascal.

“I am not aware,” Pascal responds. “I stopped voting a long time ago. Every politician says he or she will do this and change that. When they get in power, they fatten themselves up.”

Pascal and I just met. On a late August evening, I walk on Atwater Avenue toward Sherbrooke Street with a cup of coffee in my hand, feeling exhausted from my day, when I see a smiling man with short dreadlocks and dirty, worn clothes, coming toward me holding an empty McDonald’s cup.

His smile is charming, even with decaying teeth. I pour the coins I find in my purse into his cup. “Thank you!” he says.

“It’s what I have. I hope this helps. … Where do you sleep?”

“Under a truck. As long as it doesn’t rain, I’m OK.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“Oh, I create a nice mattress and some pillows and it’s like a bed.”

“Where do you shower?”

“I go to my Mom’s or the shelter.”

“Is that good?”

“No. I hate it there. It feels like prison. I go to the shelter as little as possible.”

“How do you eat?”

“I make sure I gather as much money at night and then I have enough for breakfast.”

Pascal is fourty years old. He tells me he is happy to be an SDF – Sans Domicile Fixe – which is why, Pascal says, he did not receive the notification to vote in his province’s upcoming elections. “I don’t have an address so I don’t exist,” he tells me.

In the next years, I want the people elected to govern to focus on Pascal, and the other people I see sleeping on metro benches and sidewalks, and those who come up to your car windshield while you wait at the red light hoping for some coins in exchange for what they may consider a job.

The political leaders are now standing with their political party members telling us what they will do if elected. So let’s look at some highlights.

The leader of Liberal Party of Québec and the Premier of Québec, since 2003, Jean Charest plans to increase student involvement and volunteer work by modifying Québec’s high school programs. Have you heard of just one of the wonderful examples of our youth called Katimavik, Mr. Charest? The funding for this beloved national volunteer program has been eliminated by the Canadian government.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (or CAQ), lead by François Legault, has the slogan “C’est assez, faut que ça change!” “It’s enough, it must change!” Legault proposes that a couple earning a combined salary of up to $100,000 would pay $1,000 less in provincial taxes. The CAQ would provide this tax cut by abolishing school boards and health care agencies, by eliminating 3,000 jobs, and by cutting another 4,000 jobs at Hydro-Québec.

Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, focused on secularism and preventing government employees from wearing any religious symbol—except the cross. Is this vital in ensuring the livelihood of Québec?

The only contender in my opinion is Québec Solidaire led by Amir Khadir and Françoise David—the only party led by a man and a woman. In his four years at the national assembly, Khadir, a physician, demonstrates with every issue his integrity and his commitment to his role and to us. Free education, environmental health, and a reliable pension are on the September 2012 agenda.

Reading some of your minds, please bear in mind that “left-leaning,” “right-leaning,” “sovereigntist” are hijackers that divert from what counts.

Don’t be afraid to take a chance on someone new, someone different. Find out personally about their track record and commitment. Listen to their interviews and addresses. Attend debates such as Sunday August 19th’s Débat des chefs in Montreal’s Amère à boire – how pertinent of a name. See if the values of the person and their political party match yours, today.

Please.

On Tuesday September 4th, 2012, or earlier, vote for who you believe will take care of your children, your parents, and your air. The words “economy” “jobs” “economic growth” have lost all meaning when politicians speak. I hope to believe that in 2012, we know that these words mean economic growth for the governing party members and the business partners who help them.

Inclusive and healthy overall growth comes from an inclusive-minded group who understands the needs of everyone. A group that dutifully respects First Nations peoples as an integral part of our society. We all live here, why not acknowledge all of us, and not just some of us by referring to middle class, business sector, and all those words that add nothing.

*Graphic from www.informedvote.ca*