High school debuts LGBT*Q play

Behind Closed Doors writers and producer Nikki Giles, Emma Alderman and Jodi Miles (L-R).
Behind Closed Doors writers and producer Nikki Giles, Emma Alderman and Jodi Miles (L-R). Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

The finishing touches are being put on Behind Closed Doors, an original production at the Bella Rose Arts Centre.

The play opens Friday night and examines teens facing complex lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

  • “High school has a way of making us feel lost.”
  • “The problem with high school is that labels mean so much.”
  • “Names can really hurt but labels, they can kill.”

These are all lines in the upcoming performance of Behind Closed Doors. The play was written by two students from Halifax West High School who approached Edmund MacLean, the fine arts specialist for the Halifax School Board, last May with their idea.

Jodi Miles, 18, and Nikki Giles, 16, co-wrote and are co-directing the play which has about 30 students taking part. Miles has worked closely with Gay Straight Alliance and human rights issues.

Miles says bullying exists in the school and that words such as “gay and queer used in a negative way are fairly popular in junior high.” She says bullying exists online and students frequently brush it off because they “don’t have to worry about being caught.”

Giles says the biggest struggle is “trying to find those horrible things that people do and putting them into words…without shoving them in people’s faces.” She wrote one monologue about having a gay accent that is personal to the contributors of the play. She says hearing “real stories and putting them into words is very emotional.”

The play has brought together a wide group of people who would normally never talk to each other in the halls and has allowed them to bond and become each other’s friends, says Giles.

Miles, who is graduating next year and plans to go to Carleton University, says, “I hope we at least change somebody’s point of view and make somebody learn something.”

MacLean takes great pride in the student-driven production.

“They’ll be stronger for talking about tough issues. No one will be able to touch them after this,” says MacLean, who sees the importance of tackling issues surrounding kids being bullied because they are different.

MacLean emotionally describes how he “never thought this would happen in his time.  That a group of students could be so brave and so courageous…especially in a year where so many people are committing suicide and the cyber-bullying that’s going on.”

He says ignorance creates fear, and when ignorance and fear come together, “horrible things can happen.” MacLean says the play will enlighten and educate.

Giles referred to comments last week by Alberta school board member Dale Schaffrick that suggested children should hide their sexual orientation to avoid being bullied. She says those comments provide ironic timing for the play, which she says illustrates “that it’s not OK to hide who you are.”

The Nova Scotia Education Act states it is understood that “students cannot be expected to reach their full potential in an environment where they feel insecure or intimidated.”

The Act further outlines the importance of equipping students with knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to make their school community equitable for all individuals including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning.

Producer Emma Alderman is in Grade 12 and says for the most part her school is a “safe place to come out.” She says there are still some people who are ignorant about these issues and she would like them to watch the play and get a better understanding towards the LGBT*Q community.

The students are not performing the play in front of the entire school, however they are promoting it to students and the community. The students have been in contact with Education Minister Ramona Jennex and Alderman says if the play passes a “bias evaluation test it can be used as an educational resource.”

Alderman says parents and adults often “think they’re being supportive and they think they know what they’re talking about and then they go and say something that is actually quite offensive to someone who is trying to come out or trying to be out.”

Alderman’s favourite scene in the play is called Roll Reversal, which she says is entertaining because it addresses “how stupid some of the questions people ask or some of the thoughts people have towards people who aren’t straight. If you reverse it on someone who is straight, you realize how stupid it looks.”

Proceeds from the production are going to support Youth Project, a non-profit charitable organization that provides support and services to youth ages 25 and under who are dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

MacLean says of the three girls that came together to write and produce Behind Closed Doors that “the world is a better place with those three warriors.”

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MSVU students confront rising number of mental-health incidents

MSVU Dons and RA’s started campaign to get students talking about mental health issues. Joey LeBlanc, Alissa Ali, Matt Morash and Todd MacDonald (L-R). Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

Published on UNews.ca on Nov. 26, 2012

In the last six weeks between three and six Mount Saint Vincent University students have taken excessive quantities of over-the-counter pain medication to cope with stress and anxiety.

“That’s too much, that’s way too much,” says Lynn Cashen Basso, housing co-ordinator at MSVU.

Cashen Basso has worked at MSVU as a housing coordinator for eight years and has worked at the university for 12 years. She says she is seeing an increase in, “not only the cutting,” but an “increase of readily available over-the counter stuff.”

Cashen Basso says she’s seeing an increase in large quantities of Tylenol and Advil usage by students who do not consider themselves suicidal, but rather see themselves in need of some help to cope.

They’re ”taking the pills to numb the pain and make everything go away,“ says Cashen Basso, adding that students don’t understand there are larger consequences to those actions.

Mental health issues such as anxiety, self-harm and pill over-dosing have been increasing dramatically over the past 10 years.

Students at MSVU have created a campaign to break the stigma around a wide variety of mental-health issues.

The Erase the Stigma campaign was created on a sunny Sunday afternoon, less than a month ago, when a group of student dons and residence advisers (RAs) came up with the idea of making a video. The project aims to let students know it’s OK to talk about depression — that it’s good to talk about self-harm, obsessive compulsive disorder, suicide and other tough issues affecting many students on campus.

The Erase the Stigma video launched last Wednesday on YouTube.

T-shirts and buttons were another aspect of the campaign. Participants each chose a tough topic they were passionate about and wore it on their T-shirt.

Erase the Stigma T-Shirt at MSVU. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

Alissa Ali, a student don on campus, chose depression.

Ali says campaigners wore the shirts around campus and it “created a lot of good energy around various topics.” One student who had suffered from depression told Ali that it was “comforting to know that people were taking action and spreading the word about mental health.”

Cashen Basso says she tries to educate students about the severe side-effects an overdose can have on their internal organs.

“The scary part for me is what happens when someone takes too much to cope.”

Todd MacDonald, a don at the university, has dealt first-hand with students in crisis. MacDonald says, “it can happen to a lot of students who you wouldn’t expect.” That’s part of the stigma, MacDonald says, “they think people are going to think they’re weird or are going to talk about them.”

MacDonald says there’s a lot of misinformation amongst students around pill usage. “Students don’t see the long-term affects of impulsively swallowing a half a bottle of Tylenol”, he says. It’s not until six hours later “they’re saying they’re not really trying to kill themselves, they’re trying to make themselves feel better.” MacDonald says the misinformation lies in the fact they’ve taken more than enough pills to kill themselves.

Cashen Basso supervises the RAs and the dons, and works as a close team with the counselling department. There are approximately 400 students in residence at MSVU and the ratio of RAs to students in residence is 1:24 or 1:21. She says, “they are the first point of contact for students and have developed strong bonds with them.”

Matt Morash, an RA, says wearing the shirts around campus, having the video and having people ask questions, has generated awareness. “Every conversation we had with someone was one they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” says Morash.

He says he encourages students to take walks or read a book, instead of heavy drinking and excess partying. It’s important he says, to “do your own maintenance before you get to that tipping point.”

Joey LeBlanc, an RA, says wearing their T-shirts on the same day the “I’m feeling” campaign kicked off, “helped to generate more chatter around difficult mental-health conversations. “The “I’m feeling” campaign is in it’s second year and is run through the student union.

One quarter of homeless are young people: report

Panelists discussing the Halifax Report Card on Homelessness 2012. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

A group advocating for safe and affordable housing released reports Thursday suggesting that 27 per cent of homeless people in Halifax are young people.

The Nova Scotia Housing and Homelessness Network released two reports on homelessness in Halifax at a downtown hotel on Thursday.

The reports include two key data gathering documents:

  • 1. Halifax Report Card on Homelessness 2012
  • 2. Health and Homelessness in Halifax 2012

Young women represented a dramatic change in those accessing shelters. Since 2009, females who have stayed in shelters between the age of 16 and 19 have increased 284 per cent.

Homeless advocates say a small portion of the homeless young people are attending university.

More than 75 people — including community, health-care workers and media — filled the conference room at the Four Points by Sheraton Thursday morning for the first day of a two-day conference.

The conference aims at creating discussion around the change in homelessness, housing and income in Halifax, with the goal of creating enough stable housing for all Nova Scotians by 2022.

Over the past three years, the Halifax Report Card On Homelessness 2012 indicates the number of homeless people has risen despite 240 people moving from shelters into permanent housing. The number of individuals who stayed in a shelter increased 14.8 per cent from 2009 to 2011.

Independent researcher Charlene Gagnon, the lead analyst of Health and Homelessness Network, says the reports were created to help bridge a gap which exists in collecting data on homelessness across the country.

Pamela Harrison of the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System described the increase of homeless people in Halifax as only a slice of the real number of homelessness. She says the actual number of people accessing shelters is more than 4,000 — including those who access shelters, leave to find housing, and return due to the of lack of options.

Gagnon says the report found of the 127 people interviewed in January 2011, “69 per cent said that the main reason they were still homeless in the city was because of lack of affordable housing options for them to access.” Half of the people interviewed live on less than $200 a month, says Gagnon.

One new factor examined in the report was age.

While more than 50 per cent of the homeless individuals interviewed were between ages of 26 and 49, the report found 27 per cent were youths between 16 and 25 years old. Of the people surveyed who were homeless for less than one year, 41 per cent of them were youths.

University students and homelessness

Homelessness exists within the universities and occurs “when students come from home and don’t have anyone to support them,” says Harrison. If “(students) don’t know how to manage money,” they start accessing food-banks and health services more frequently.

Harrison says some students “are overwhelmed and drop out and end up in a shelter.” She says youth services need to enable these students to get back functioning within society.

While the report did not specifically target university students and homelessness, Harrison said people need to understand not every single university student is the same.

“When you look at somebody next to you in the classroom, you don’t know if they have a home to go home to tonight, you don’t know if they’re living in a shelter, you don’t know if they have family that is sending them money if they need it,” says Harrison.

“University students don’t see themselves as shelter users but they do see themselves users of services for youth. So we’re trying to increase that in Halifax.”

Patti Melanson of Mobile Outreach Street Health says she met a Dalhousie student less than a week ago who had lost his accommodation and is now staying in a Halifax shelter. In these instances, Melanson says shelter usage is usually short term.

It’s difficult to track the real numbers of students affected by homelessness.

Jean Hughes, a nursing professor at Dalhousie and a research contributor on the report, says some students find themselves homeless and “couch surf, staying at neighbours or friends, but not having one secure place to live.” She says life is extremely difficult for homeless students desperately trying to get their degree.

“Moving around with no sense of routine or permanency is very disruptive.”

Wendy Fraser the director of women’s services at the YWCA Halifax says there are currently five women staying in shelters through their housing programs, who are currently working towards their university or college degrees.

Melanson says university students can help decrease the number of homeless people by “becoming more skilled in addressing homelessness in the community.”

It’s great that students volunteer but they “can’t be in fix-it mode all the time,” she says.

Melanson suggests students should challenge themselves within the discipline they are studying to become more aware of issues surrounding addiction, mental health and homelessness, and “translate it to the role (they) take on after university.”

Council votes to reject Skye towers

Proposed Skye Towers. Courtesy: Skye Halifax

Council can’t just “sway in the wind” on regional plan, says Mosher

Halifax city council voted against sending the Skye Halifax project to public hearing on Tuesday.

The 48-storey Skye project — proposed by developer United Gulf Development — was to be built on the old parking lot on Sackville Street between Granville and Hollis Streets. Skye would have included 600 residential units in its 172-metre-high towers. The units could have offered affordable housing to young buyers interested in living in the downtown core.

Councillor Linda Mosher said it was a difficult decision. She recognized the need to revitalize downtown, and referred to one constituent in her riding who was forced to move to Toronto because they had a $350,000 budget for a condo and “couldn’t find one in downtown Halifax.” Mosher said she likes the “height and densification of downtown” but HRM by Design was “compromised too much.” She said city council needs to have confidence to follow its policies and “can’t just sway with the wind.”

Councillor Brad Johns recognized the demand for affordable housing downtown, but said it’s not a justifiable reason to move forward with the project. Johns said council should address the pressing issue of affordable housing and that it should not be used as criteria for supporting Skye project.

Councillor Lorelei Nicoll said she’s “not convinced (Skye) is where our youth will find it affordable to live.”

“We’re putting all our eggs in one basket by having development all happen in that one building,” said Nicoll. She would like to see development dispersed evenly downtown and not all in one place.

Richard Harvey, the acting urban design project manager for the HRM, voiced concerns from the design review committee about the effect the project would have on the streetscape environment and the loss of sky-view. Harvey recommended city council not move to a public hearing.

Dartmouth councillor Gloria McCluskey voted to push the project to a public hearing and stressed the importance of “hearing from the residents first hand.” McCluskey questioned why council is afraid to hear from the public. While she may not agree with the project, she said it’s not up to her to decide, it’s up to the people.

Downtown councillor Waye Mason urged council to vote yes to halting the development. He said there is a need for clear and consistent rules for downtown development and the decision is about trust.

“We agreed as a community and a municipality to develop the vision of what downtown should look like,” he said, but “the watchdog that protects the plan’s integrity is our design review committee, and the design review committee has recommended that we reject this proposal.”

Mason said council has a specific goal in spreading development around downtown, but “focusing this much development on one small site will not help replace all the missing teeth in our downtown.”

Councillor Jennifer Watts agreed with Mason and said the development was not in the best interest of downtown Halifax.

“We know change needs to happen,” said Watts, who looked closely at economic arguments against the project going forward. She said as councillors it is their “fundamental role to discern and uphold the integrity of the plan.”

Councillor David Hendsbee wanted to move forward with the public hearing and believes the proposal has “a considerable amount of merit.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a couple of twin towers in the city,” he said.

Mayor Mike Savage joined the debate saying the decision was not about the height of the project, urban density or vibrancy in the downtown core, but about whether or not council is committed to following a plan.

Savage voted in favour of stopping the development from proceeding and said it “could damage the bond of trust that this new council must have with the citizens we serve.”

United Gulf Development had predicted occupants would spend $14-16 million annually downtown and contribute $6 million annually in municipal tax revenue.”

Looking to the future, Watts said planning staff need to focus on an urgent plan of action for developing downtown Halifax — one that is desperately needed in the urban core.

The Results:

Vote: Yes = Kill the Project, No = Move forward to public hearing

  • Mayor Mike Savage:                Yes
  • District 1 – Barry Dalrymple:    No
  • District 2 – David Hendsbee:    No
  • District 3 – No current councillor
  • District 4 – Lorelie Nicoll:         Yes
  • District 5 – Gloria McCluskey:   No
  • District 6 – Darren Fisher:       No
  • District 7 – Waye Mason:         Yes
  • District 8 – Jennifer Watts:      Yes
  • District 9 – Linda Mosher:        Yes
  • District 10 – Russell Walker:    No
  • District 11 – Stephen Adams:  No
  • District 12 – Reg Rankin:         Yes
  • District 13 – Matt Whitman:    No
  • District 14 – Brad Johns:         Yes
  • District 15 – Steve Craig:        Yes
  • District 16 – Tim Outhit:         Yes

Mystery flood plagues King’s basement

King’s soggy stairwell. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

King’s students are curious about the growing hole in the stairwell in the main building on campus.  The hole is taking on a life of its own.

There’s no point in putting the mops away until maintenance finds the source of the flooding.  Water has been pooling up behind closed doors for some time.

The King’s Student Union (KSU) found their storage room completely flooded last month.  They had been using an old laundry room in the building’s basement to store boxes of files and records — records which were used by the university’s Wardroom pub, KSU and the Galley canteen.

The room was opened last month and found to be completely flooded, with most of the materials ruined.

“We had a day to remove all of our boxes.  They were rancid and full of flies,” says KSU Internal Co-ordinator John Adams, who believes the water had been in the room for awhile, given the condition of the materials.

“I assume the building is sinking,” Adams said with a laugh. “Actually, I don’t really know what’s the cause.”

The remaining scraps of event materials, record books and files are piled in a small corner of the KSU office.

UNews is awaiting comment from the university’s maintenance crew on plans to fix the leak.