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Howard Anglin: A hard life accounts for Sinead O’Connor’s pain. Her courage was her own

Commentary

I didn’t know much about Sinead O’Connor except her music. I knew that she’d had a physically abusive childhood and that, after the death of her son, she wanted to kill herself seriously enough to be hospitalised. I knew there were documentaries and books about her life, but I never sought them out. I didn’t have to know the details to know that she lived with deep pain. I am sure that much of that pain can be traced to specific incidents in her life, but all you needed to do was listen to her sing to know that there was more to it than that.

A hard life may explain her pain, but it doesn’t account for the courage with which O’Connor met it. That came from somewhere deeper, and so I suspect did her experience of pain—not just her own, but the universal condition. She seemed from the beginning, in songs like the anguished personal-political anthem “This is a Rebel Song,” to be one of those who felt everywhere the “tears in the nature of things.” There are such people. They see the world with its skin peeled off, and can’t look away. And between her frailty, accentuated by her shaved head, and her fierce strength, you couldn’t look away from her.

That vulnerability and strength came through in her voice, which could move from whispered tenderness to feral anger in a phrase. The effect was, as I’ve heard it described this week, otherworldly. I always thought of her as something like a medieval saint, one of those ferocious young women like Catherine of Siena or Ireland’s own St Íte, whose faith was so unnervingly intense that it could only be understood by others as divinely inspired. There was nothing sentimental about her singing; everything was immanent and vital, like suffering.

Since her death, two videos have circulated widely. The first is the moment that brought her to mainstream attention thirty years ago, when she tore a photo of St John Paul II into pieces on Saturday Night Live. I was too young and too irreligious at the time to appreciate the outrageous nature of that act. Watching it now as a Catholic who has prayed at the tomb of that pope-saint, it is still shocking. I physically revolt at the gesture. But she wasn’t wrong. The Church’s complicity in abuse was infinitely more scandalous, more sacrilegious, than her protest.

The other video is from a concert honouring Bob Dylan a few days later at Madison Square Garden. If she didn’t know it by then, her performance that night confirmed that she had become a pariah. After she was introduced by Kris Kristofferson, O’Connor took the stage to a wall of boos. Even on a grainy video, it’s loud, so I can’t imagine how deafening it must have been on stage. It’s sickening to watch. And she just stands there and takes it, like a scapegoat who understands that this is the role she has to play now, like the young sacrificial victim in Seamus Heaney’s Punishment.

her shaved head

like a stubble of black corn,

her blindfold a soiled bandage,

her noose a ring

Except O’Connor isn’t blindfolded. She stares back at the audience, a slight 26-year-old woman facing an arena of ex-‘60s radicals mellowed into comfortable middle-aged reaction, a crowd of Bob Dylan fans for goodness sake, showering her with the contempt of the Roman Colosseum. After a minute, Kristofferson comes back out to encourage her. He puts his arm around her and tells her—you can just make it out in the video—“Don’t let the bastards get you down.” “I’m not down,” she replies.

Kristofferson walks back off stage and O’Connor signals to the band to cut the song they are trying vainly to introduce over the crowd’s braying. She tells the sound producers to turn up her mic and she starts to sing, though it’s more shouting than singing, the opening verses of Bob Marley’s “War.” The word passion covers a confusion of related emotions—love, rage, compulsion, sacrifice—and you can hear it all in O’Connor’s voice as she doubles down at the end, calling out the Church’s participation in child abuse. This was almost a decade before the newsroom exposé celebrated in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.

Those two moments stand out not because they were extraordinary, though they were, but because for O’Connor they were so ordinary. You can hear the passion of that night in all her performances, from her global-hit cover of the obscure Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U” to the traditional ghostly Irish ballad, which she recorded as “He Moved Through the Fair.” She even managed to make a schmaltzy showstopper like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” sound like a confession so private, a plea so personal that you feel like you are overhearing something you shouldn’t. Like a ghost haunting the place it once suffered, the memory of that voice will remain with us.

Andrea Mrozek: Staffing shortages are a bad look for the government’s expensive daycare program

Commentary

“The whole world is short-staffed—be kind to those that showed up,” reads a sign outside an Ottawa doctor’s office. It’s a sign of the times.

Labour shortages are common today, but none have received as much attention as child care.

The success of the Trudeau government’s Canada-wide early learning and child care plan (sometimes described as its “national daycare plan”) hinges on parents actually gaining access to subsidized spaces. Nationally, there are licensed spaces for only roughly 30 percent of Canadian children, and licensed care is the only kind included in the $10 per day plan.

That means spending billions and finding that existing spaces can’t be filled due to staffing shortages isn’t a good look.

And forget about expansion—the YMCA Canada reports a staffing shortage so severe even children currently enrolled cannot attend. In a March 2023 briefing to the federal committee studying child care legislationthe YMCA wrote that it’s missing “419 staff to meet current registrations, 1,427 staff to return to pre-COVID operating capacity, 2,869 staff to move to licensed capacity and 3,442 to expand beyond licensed capacity by 20 percent.”

Yet not every daycare is reporting shortages, and where they are, increasing wages and benefits is not viewed as a panacea. Parent groups, child care associations, daycare owners, and early childhood educators are talking about solutions beyond money.

If you understand “child care as the care of a child no matter who does it,” then there is no labour shortage at all, said Helen Ward, who leads Kids First Parent Association.

“There is a huge early learning and child care labour supply. All kids, with a minority of exceptions, are currently actually in child care,” said Ward. “There are more healthy grandparents/elders and fewer young kids proportionally than ever before… Grandparents and aunties are key in Indigenous cultures as in other ethnic groups, and all are ignored and sidelined by an official definition of child care as including only licensed daycare.”

Ward’s definition may better reflect family practice across Canada. It is not, however, remotely acceptable amongst some child care activists, and by extension, politicians and policymakers. For them, child care is done by credentialed professionals.

Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care advocates this dominant narrative. Her group’s solution to staffing shortages lies primarily in improving wages and benefits.

“Our position is there should be a provincial child care workforce strategy that includes a provincial salary scale for ECEs and child care workers,” said Ferns. “I believe recruitment strategies that focus on training and hiring more ECEs will not work until we deal with the retention crisis. The two things should ideally happen in tandem, but wages are a key piece of both recruitment and retention.”

They’re asking that salaries start at $30/hour for registered ECEs and $25/hour for non-registered ECE staff.

Wages may be key but they’re not the only thing bringing people to work. Another important factor is flexibility, something Robert Southam, who runs two daycares in B.C.’s Okanagan, has discovered.

He solved his staffing issues by not seeking credentialed ECEs. Instead, he hires for fit and aptitude and offers paid on-the-job training.

“The wage argument is an old school mentality, a legacy demand that has lost some of its relevance with the current workforce that really wants flexibility,” he said.

When he runs his ads, he gets “a barrage of applicants.” These include young women between jobs, highly educated foreign applicants looking to establish a career in Canada, or a 29-year-old mom, who is currently working minimum wage, evenings and weekends.

“Our offer is, for them, a lot better than what they are currently doing,” said Southam.

For him, a mandated wage grid would kill jobs. He has budgeted four educators whereas B.C. legislation only requires three. “If my ten-year educator is getting $27/hour and if the wage grid comes in and says you have to pay her $32, I can no longer afford to have four educators,” he said.

Children play on a play structure as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to parents at the YMWCA daycare in Winnipeg. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Data collected by the College of Early Childhood Educators, Ontario’s ECE regulator, also points to attrition for reasons beyond wages. For ECEs who’ve resigned, almost half (49 percent) cite “no longer working in the ECE field” as a reason. Retirement comes next at 17 percent. But a significant 12 percent have moved to another province or country. This speaks to a need for immigration reform.

Anny Nasser, an Ontario daycare owner, has lost staff to other provinces.

“There’s a lot of staff who come in and move to other provinces because it’s favourable immigration-wise. I’ve had two staff leave because of that. One moved to Nova Scotia and one moved to B.C.,” she says. “I will say I’ve never had staffing issues until post-COVID.”

Andrea Hannen, executive director of the Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario, hopes for a “whole government” approach to labour shortages. This means the involvement of several ministries. 

Although the ministry of education already provides tuition assistance, she encouraged the ministry of labour to help international students work across the province and the ministry of colleges and universities to help existing daycare workers get ECE qualifications.

For Hannen, wages and benefits are not the sole answer, either.

“Benefits are definitely an issue and there is wage disparity,” she said. “Often people go to the public sector because it pays better. But whether public or private, working conditions can be challenging. Often there isn’t a lot of flexibility in the workplace. There are other factors, like having sufficient autonomy as an educator.”

Southam and Hannen both believe the labour shortage could be quickly resolved with a concerted effort. Southam mused about whether those advocating for higher wages and benefits actually want to solve the problem.

“The labour shortage seems to serve their purpose. If the labour shortage is solved, the government’s institutionalization of child care becomes less of a thing to mandate,” he said.

While ECE recruitment and retention are not new subjects, the core focus until recently was a shortage of spaces, not workers. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who recently concluded a consultation about the child care labour situation, said he heard the feedback “loud and clear” about wage increases. Ontario’s ministry of education did not reply to requests about who was consulted or what those consultations entailed.

Meanwhile, many child care workers and owners likely agree with Nasser.

“Child care as a whole is experiencing either a growth spurt or a transition,” she said. “Something is in the air. And I kind of need it to settle. It’s a lot on everyone’s plate.”