The Legality of Drone Strikes

For the first time the U.S. government has opened the door – though only slightly – to its ongoing campaign to hunt down those it deems to be threats to the United States through the use of unmanned drones to launch precision missiles.

Using such tactics is controversial to say the least. In many cases, these methods are carried out in countries the U.S. is not engaged with in war (i.e. Pakistan and Yemen) bringing into question a country’s sovereignty. Also, there is a great sense for those who oppose such tactics that basic elements of Western law are ignored, such as the right to a trial; several American citizens have been killed using these tactics.

I interviewed Mary Ellen O’Connell, former vice president of the American Society of International Law, on the U.S. government’s use of unmanned drones to kill enemy targets later last year, and with the recent appearance of openness regarding drone strikes I thought I would post it.

O’Connell agrees with drone use as weapons in countries the U.S. are engaged with in war (like in Afghanistan), but she opposes their use as instruments of death in countries the U.S. are not at war with (places like Pakistan and Yemen).

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Dying on welfare

Susan Eagle, a minister and former London city councillor, remembers a time when she officiated over a funeral for someone who couldn’t afford the costs.

“We did the funeral with the dollars that (the city) provided. When I went to the funeral home to set up the funeral, I was informed that the money did not include visitation.”

The woman who died was young and left behind three little children. Eagle told the people at funeral home that it was terribly important that there be a visitation for the sake of the children so they could have some closure. “At the time, I remember thinking who sets the rules that says visitation isn’t included as part of the basic package because isn’t that stupid.”

Reverend Susan Eagle
Photo courtesy of ISARC
Rev. Susan Eagle says it’s important for the poor to be treated fairly in their last rites.

The funeral home agreed to her suggestion.

In Canada, dying can be an expensive affair. For those who are financially unstable, a funeral can be a daunting expense. But poor families are not without options when it comes to saying goodbye to loved ones, as municipalities offer financial assistance to those in need.

According to Statistics Canada, the funeral business in 2010 was worth approximately $1.66 billion. In that same year, Ontario accounted for nearly half of that total. The Registered Persons Database for the Ontario ministry of health and long-term care indicates the annual death total in the province to be more than 80,000 people.

The costs of a funeral vary greatly depending on the type of service a family asks for and the associated items selected. For example, caskets can range from $1,000 to more than $10,000, and the average costs for a full service funeral are just under $5,000, says Doug Manners, funeral director atDonohue Funeral Home in London, Ont. If you add those prices together and include taxes, the cost of a funeral can be considerable

From 2008 to 2011, London provided funding for between 170 and 190 individual funerals each year, says Jackie Van Ryswyk, manager of intake and discretionary benefits.

The amount of money provided for funerals varies between municipalities, but in London $3,605, excluding taxes, is granted to eligible families, in addition to the cost of the burial or cremation, which can cost another $1,000. The $3,605 covers the removal of the body and the basic care of the deceased, a two-hour visitation, a service – with the possibility of a member of the clergy – a newspaper notice and other documentation, says Van Ryswyk.

Manners has been a licensed funeral director for 20 years. For as long as he has been in that job, municipalities have provided assistance for people who cannot afford a funeral. Manners estimates Donohue Funeral Home served about eight or 12 families through the funeral program offered by discretionary benefits last year.

“With any family we don’t make any assumptions or considerations from a financial standpoint,” says Manners. “Our first priority is looking after that family.”

Before a person can receive funding, discretionary benefits must deduce that the person is eligible. “We look at assets and bank accounts. We need to verify that type of information,” says Van Ryswyk. “If they’re receiving assistance we know that, and they may be approved right over the phone.”

Once a person is approved, discretionary benefits provides a funeral home of the family’s choice with a funeral order number. After this stage, the family is left to decide how the funeral will be carried out. “We provide the funeral home with the order number and then the bill will come to us,” says Van Ryswyk.

Eagle, who now lives in Barrie, remembers there being a showdown between the city and the funeral homes in her last year on council in 2010.  She says the funeral homes sent a joint letter demanding an increase in the amount of money the city offered for assisted funerals. “They were basically demanding that there be an increase or they were going to refuse to do funerals on behalf of people in the community.”

This past February, the city raised the amount of funding it will provide to the current $3,605. Before then the city paid up to $2,270, a price that was set in 2004, according to numbers provided by John Donohue, manager of Donohue Funeral Home. Before then the amount was $1,823, a price that had been around since 1992.

Van Ryswyk believes providing funeral assistance is an important aspect of discretionary benefits. “We deal with a very vulnerable population that doesn’t have a lot of resources. So I think it’s important that we provide that service for families like that in their time of need.”

“People need closure, they need the opportunity to deal with death,” adds Eagle, who has been a minister in the United Church for 30 years. “Most of us know that a funeral is not for the person that died; it’s for the family.”

Manners believes it’s the duty of the funeral home to look after each family no matter their individual financial situations. He says he knows of many times when the funeral home would provide a service that was not part of what was provided through social assistance, including additional time for visitation or transportation.

Doug Manners
Photo courtesy of Donohue Funeral Home
Doug Manners believes that every family in need should be treated the same.

In broaching the topic of expenses Manners says experience counts. “You learn a lot about people in spending a bit of time with them,” he says. “People make comments, or they may have a look on their face, or they may ask, ‘you know, how do you want to be paid, or when do we have to pay, or I don’t really know how we can do this.’”

“The last thing I’d want anyone to do is to find themselves in financial hardship to provide a funeral for a member of their family,” he says.

But the discrepancies between the actual cost and government provisions are significant. By providing the exact same level of service for families receiving assistance, the funeral homes operate at what ends up being a financial loss, says Manners.

“Our concern is not the quality of service or the level of service. We’re here always to look after the families that come to ask us for help, regardless of their financial situation and regardless for who is paying,” he says.

The rates and terms of assistance for families who cannot afford to pay for a funeral varies between municipalities. In London, the city does not dictate to families what they are entitled to but offers a base level from which the family can upgrade at their own expense. This differs from the GTA for example, where Manners also worked, where the cities decide what the family gets and does not allow for variation.

When Eagle was still in London, she was at odds with the policy of setting restrictions on what was provided by the city. “Most of our clergy are willing to volunteer to do something. But on the other hand here’s the government expecting that everybody else will pick up the pieces,” she says. “There’s a little bit of thought there, like, what’s in it for the government to make it that undignified for people. It makes it a different funeral than a regular funeral.”

It’s difficult to define just what a dignified funeral is, because it’s all based on the impression or opinion of the individual, says Manners.

In his opinion, it shouldn’t matter whether the family is receiving assistance or is paying $10,000 or more — everyone is entitled to the same treatment.

“What I know for certain is the way that things are done here, regardless of the type of funeral someone is having, our approach to provide that dignity is the same. So everyone in my mind receives a dignified funeral.”

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Hamilton Police leading the way in social media

To do their jobs effectively police need to use all the tools at their disposal. But now some police are armed with more than just batons, mace and a gun. Smart phones and Blackberrys are holstered right alongside a sidearm, adding social media like Twitter to the police’s arsenal.

The Addressing Crime Trends in our Neighbourhoods, or ACTION Team 4, has been a part of the Hamilton Police Service since May of 2010. It can be found patrolling the downtown core on foot and bike decked out in their bright yellow jackets.

The focus of ACTION is to reduce crime, especially violent and drug crime, through intervention and prevention. One way the team works to achieve this is to be highly visible within the community – thus the reasoning for their high presence downtown and the fashionable jacket choice.

Their presence, however, extends well beyond the physical realm of King and James. The team has a huge presence in the Twitterverse with more than 1700 followers for its @HPSActionTeam4 handle.

Sgt. Jay Turner, a 21-year veteran with the Hamilton Police Service, leads the charge for the team’s social media footprint, and is the innovator behind the use of Twitter at the police force.

It’s been four years since Turner first embraced Twitter and it didn’t take long for him to see the potential application for ACTION Team 4.

“I knew coming in that the ACTION team was going to be different. It was a whole new style of policing for the City of Hamilton. It’s a new-old style of policing with boots on the street, officers talking to business owners, officers talking to the public, gaining the confidence of the public and just being seen out there.”

For Turner, Twitter seemed to go hand in hand with the high visibility of the team.

“The idea of Twitter was just to tell people we are out here, we’re in your community, look for us, find us, engage us, interact with us, learn about what we’re trying to do proactively to build a better city.

@HPSActionTeam4 was the first Twitter account of the Hamilton Police – it now has seven dedicated accounts. Turner sent a note to his superiors in 2010 about his idea to use Twitter to build an ally base within the Hamilton community. Working under the assumption that it was better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission he opened the account.

This led to a bit of tension between the media department, headed by Catherine Martin, and Turner, because his superiors neglected to inform her about what he was doing.

“I get a call from Catherine Martin one day saying ‘What are you doing?’ and I say ‘What do you mean what am I doing?’ and then all hell broke loose and we had to have some big meetings,” Turner says with a laugh.

But the conflict didn’t last long as Martin now says the Hamilton police’s first foray into Twitter has been a “fantastic experience.”

HPS ACTION Team makes arrest

ACTION Team 4 announce via Twitter when they make arrests in the community.

Turner isn’t sure if Hamilton’s police were the first to use Twitter, but he does think they are the best. A recent trip to Vancouver for a police conference seemed to reaffirm his belief.

The deputy chief of the Toronto police force was moderating a panel and when Turner stood up to ask a question he praised him and his team’s work.

“He said everything you do is excellent and every time I see what you’re doing I wish my Toronto guys were doing even some of what you’re doing,” says Turner.

He says he can always tell when the Toronto police are running a training course because his followers on Twitter always seem to go up by about ten people.

“We’re a benchmark, and we’re a training example. People are looking at us and seeing what we’re doing and they’re modeling their policing on us,” Turner told the chief of police after coming back from the Vancouver conference.

Social media has moved beyond the world of kids and technophiles and is now a viable media source. There is intelligence out there to be gathered, and information to be given.

“Social media is no longer a hobby it’s a necessity, and I think we’re beginning to realize that,” says Turner.

ACTION Team 4 not afraid to make tongue in cheek comments

Sgt. Jay Turner uses humour to connect with the public and show the police are people too.

Turner is quick to point out, however, that he is not a corporate communicator; he is first and foremost the leader of a team. His passion for communicating via Twitter is done entirely on his own time with no remuneration for his tweets, which number over 20,000 between @HPSActionTeam4 and his own personal account.

The range of conversations Turner has with people in the community is vast, covering everything from live arrest updates to discussing the ongoing revitalization of the Hamilton core. The massive amount of tweets has allowed the Hamilton public to put a face to the police.

“All I’m trying to do with that is make people laugh a little bit, make people realize that cops are human beings, and that we’re out here trying to do whatever we can to ensure the public safety for the City of Hamilton.”

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Sunday Funday

Every week a group of friends from the University of Western Ontario gather for a meal where they talk, laugh, and help those less fortunate in the London community.

Reporting, Filming and Editing by Aaron Rathbone

Producers: Drew Crawford and Irani Seecharan

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When social media #backfires

Late last month McDonald’s encouraged its Twitter followers to tweet about their experiences at its restaurants, using the hashtag #McDStories. The hashtag quickly went viral on the Twitter-verse, but not for the reason the company surely hoped for.

Tweets like “haven’t eaten there in 30 years. Growing up we called them gut bombs #McDStories” became a typical shot at the fast food chain.

The whole event serves as proof that companies venturing into the world of social media do so at their own risk.

Alex Sevigny, program director for the master of communications management program at McMaster University, says Twitter’s anonymity can result in a barrage of cynicism. “A good policy is expect the worst when it comes to social media.”

He says for a successful social media strategy it is necessary to encourage a culture of respect rather than criticism.

Larry Lau, marketing manager of ATMOS Marketing
Photo by ATMOS Marketing
Larry Lau, marketing manager of ATMOS Marketing, says companies should build relationships with their customers over social media, not sell them products.

Larry Lau, marketing manager and co-founder of ATMOS Marketing in London, Ont., agrees. He suggests businesses should use social media to build a better rapport with customers.

“Social media is meant to engage with customers, not so much to advertise and promote products and services.”

Lau says his company often uses the #LdnOnt hashtag in order to remain in the loop of what is trending in the city, and that way it remains an active participant in the online community.

“I think that social media can be done effectively for any company no matter the size. There are a lot of companies that target a specific demographic or region for a specific brand. A national campaign can get out of hand if you don’t have people monitoring it constantly,” says Lau.

Sevigny says the best way to look at media like Twitter is to think of it as going back to the town square, where everybody knows everybody and you do business based on trust and credibility.

“Twitter is not a medium that you do the hard sell over, or take a traditional marketing approach. Twitter is a medium for relationship building and trust building. And that’s much more a public relations function than a marketing function,” says Sevigny.

Photo by Aaron Rathbone
The online conversation explodes over the #McDstories hashtag.

An example of this, interestingly, comes from McDonald’s with its#MeetTheFarmers Twitter campaign introducing some of the people who supply the restaurant’s products. This strategy allowed the company to put out its message with less of a chance for subversion by Twitter users, while communicating a sense of the company’s values.

Lau does not believe the poor Twitter response will hurt McDonald’s. “Whatever happens on Twitter is not going to change the revenue or business that they’re going to get from their customers.”

Sevigny agrees that this hiccup will not hurt the fast food giant, but does see the potential devastation that could result from one poorly managed tweet.

“They’ve had challenges before with food myths so this is not a new narrative for McDonald’s. But if you think about a charity or a hospital and you’re trying to build an online community and something goes terribly wrong on your Twitter strategy and people start saying the most heinous things about your charity – you could be decimated.”

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Early this afternoon a group of mostly young people took to the streets to demonstrate their frustration over the actions of a London police officer last week. Last Thursday the officer tasered a student, hitting him in the face, to break up a fight. The incident was captured on camera and was the catalyst to the outrage of the students who took part in today’s march.

Around 2:30 the crowd of demonstrators, who seemed to be mostly high school students, neared the intersection of Richmond and Dundas tailed by about ten cruisers and a forensic evidence police van which filmed the demonstration. In similar fashion, the young people sported their phones to film the police. The cameras providing assurance for both sides to keep the other in check.

The crowd moved in a way that can only be described as youthful bravado. Many of the kids went shirtless, with slogans painted on signs and their chests. N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” slogan was a prominent feature as bandana clad youths proudly stomped their way through the street.

United and proud in their puerile defiance I saw two kids taken away. The first because he was trying to provoke the crowd into violence. The second decided to join in the stupidity and stepped into the street to block a police car from driving through the intersection.

Was the police officer wrong to taser the young man last Thursday? Probably. The video above shows there was little sign of a threat posed by the youth towards the officer. More importantly, what grown man let alone a police officer wouldn’t be able to detain a minor (and not a very big one) without having to use unnecessary force like a Taser?

But what was on display this afternoon was not a call for justice for police actions, but rather a demonstration of disdain and disrespect for authority.


FTP at Richmond and Dundas

Youth pitted themselves against the “establishment” in asinine fashion. Waving red and black flags (really? Where can I buy a Che Guevara shirt?), shirts off, grunting, chest puffing and slapping, banner waving, strutting the cross walk attempting to C-walk (someone forgot to tell these kids they live in South Western Ontario, not South Central L.A.).

Not that long ago, I would have probably joined the rank and file of the young marchers. Rebelling is an integral part of being a teenager after all (though I like to think I was more well-informed than to go out brandishing anarchist and communist symbols to show my disgust at police actions).

Maybe I’m just getting old? Or at least too old to march without a purpose other than being a shit disturber.

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Hitch’s take on the Bible’s Commandments

Christopher Hitchens gave a lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum entitled “The Three New Commandments.”

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