Terrorism Comes Home

Recently I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with a Syrian family that arrived in Canada from Jordan about a month and a half ago.  Myself and the volunteers I work with are tasked over the next year to help them settle into Canada.  I will tell you that it is not easy – while these families get lots of support, they don’t get any luxuries and are essentially living in poverty.  We aren’t creating touching Tim Hortons commercials here – it’s a lot of work on both sides and it’s not always smooth. But ultimately it is rewarding because Canada is trying to provide them a place of safety, a place of refuge, a place where they can raise and educate their children while their own country falls apart. Through fits and starts they are making progress.

I haven’t gotten to know the family well yet, but from what I have learned, they have gone through stuff that you and I can only imagine.  I will safely say that none of the people that will read this blog post have ever had their homes destroyed or had close civilian family members killed in war – but they have.  They are the faces and the emotion behind the statistics and facts that are the Syrian war.  While they feel safe here there are still the loved ones left behind in Syria that are effectively trapped in a failed state with extreme violence and so there is still a burden they carry that includes a whole lot of worry and angst.

Earlier today Leanne and I were at the family’s house helping them with some furniture.  Outside the family’s sons were playing hockey with some sticks that they were recently given. At one point, they called upon their Syrian neighbour to drop the ball for a faceoff. It was a beautiful classic piece of Canadiana.  Each of the boys has already been out skating with their school and for all we can tell, they are adapting well.  Through all of the stuff they have been through, they are still able to experience joy in our country and frankly I feel blessed to have seen it first hand.

This experience juxtaposes jarringly with recent events.  Trump’s racist policies with his Muslim ban has spawned outrage across the US and Canada.  In Canada, it also spawned our worst character trait – smugness – to rise up.  We think we are better than the States because we would never enact such a policy and better yet, we open our arms up to refugees.  It can be nauseating to be honest.

And then tonight happened.  A Canadian terrorist opened fire in a mosque outside of Quebec City and killed a number of people.  The perpetrators likely killed more Muslims in one act of violence than Islamic terrorists have killed Canadians over the last 15 years. And our smugness disappeared and now we must face a reality that we are not as good as we think we are.  The fact is, we can’t be smug because we need to be vigilant.  The fact is, this kind of violence was enabled in large part on a disturbing reality that has been building for years.  The Stephen Harper Conservatives ran with a platform that featured the Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline and a vendetta against Niqabs and nearly won the election.  Kellie Leitch, with the assistance of her scum bag campaign manager Nick Kouvalis are running a campaign for the Canadian leadership based on thinly veiled racism masked through a Canadian Values Test for newcomers to Canada.  Quebec had the Bouchard Taylor Commission that focused attention on growing intolerance in Quebec and subsequently brought out the worst of Quebec society in public hearings.  Ezra Levant has a small but loyal following despite the crap he continually spews.  People set fire to a mosque in Peterborough.  I have seen examples of casual racism from people I am acquainted with on Facebook who live in Kamloops.

What I am saying is that Canada is not immune to racism and yet we often turn a blind eye to it.  It is tempting to blame the terrorism experienced in Quebec City on Trump, but we need to own this or else nothing will change. We must not treat this as an isolated incident but rather a culmination of events leading to this.

This brings me back to the family I have the honour of working with.  They were brought to Canada so that they could be safe, raise a family, and hopefully prosper.  While my exposure has been limited, they have enriched my life and they will enrich our community in due time. This may be an overreaction but my concern is that we, Canada, promised them safety – can we keep this promise in lieu of tonight’s events?  Can we tell them not to be fearful when people, terrorists, can go into a mosque and shoot people at prayer?  How do we ensure that our Muslim community must not live in fear?

 

 

Thoughts on the Women’s March and where do we go from here?

It was inspiring today to see photos of women’s marches throughout the world including in Kamloops in resistance to the ideas of the newly inaugurated President Trump.  His ideas are based on misogyny, intolerance and racism and hauntingly dangerous.  His toxic mix of lack of intelligence, ignorance, and thin skin combined with the power he know wields is dangerous for the world.  The women’s march was a welcome course correction perhaps slightly modifying the scary trajectory things are on, even if temporarily and providing an ounce of hope that things might not be that bad.  The march was impressive in its size (bigger than the inauguration), its scale (global on all the continents), its diversity, and its message (peace, love, unity, not fear and division). I will admit though, it left me wondering where do we go from here.  For as great as the march was, it will be but a small footnote in history in comparison to that which it is protesting against unless it results in meaningful action.

While the great fear is what will happen in the United States and what the United States will do to the rest of the world through its carelessness, we must remember that Canada, and Canadians are not immune to acting like Trump and his followers.  We should not be naive. Stephen Harper nearly got elected with a platform of isolating Muslim people.  Kellie Leitch, with the assistance of her campaign manager Nick Kouvalis is running for the Conservative leadership based in large part on a platform based on thinly veiled racism.  Racism still exists in Canada. Institutionalized racism still exists in the treatment of Indigenous peoples (see the inequality in education funding as one example). Our smugness can blinds us to a reality that is not flattering.   While we must allow people to express their thoughts and opinion, we must also not give air to those opinions that are based in prejudice.  Heck, Don Cherry is still allowed to be on public television and he has been espousing bigotry for the last 30 years.  Hopefully the women’s march will provide an awakening to Canadians that we must always strive to be better.

So where do we go from here?  I am reminded of my friend Kathy Sinclair’s posting on Facebook the night of the election and her commitment to action:

‘I will fight. I will work tirelessly for the promotion of peace and social justice and good and welcoming of all in this world. In whatever small way I can. I may not be American, but I can do something.’

Kathy is right, we can probably do something.  Seeing the women’s march today made me think of what I can do.  Here are some thoughts:

  • I will attempt to gain a better understanding of the experience of Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, people living in poverty, people in the Black Lives Matter movement, various minorities, and other people that have lived through different forms of marginalization.  The internet can be a giant cesspool of crap but it can also be an inspiring and educational place to hang out and learn about what’s happening outside of our day to day existence and enables us to get the first person experience. For instance, while Gord Downie’s Secret Path project is important, there are many Indigenous people that have shared their lived experience in residential schools – those are the voices that we should be listening to.
  • I will continue to support the arts in our community because the arts provides exposure to a diversity of people and of thought and they can create joy and they can cause reflection.   I can point to watching plays, movies and TV shows and listening to different kinds of music as fundamentally changing my viewpoint on certain issues and shifting my thinking and perspectives.
  • I will support a strong public education system because it’s through education that we enable creative and critical thinkers to evolve. While I don’t have kids in the system, I am in a place where I can support initiatives that help with kids educational experience, particularly in some of our schools that are not as well off.
  • I will remind myself that I am a citizen first, taxpayer second.  Taxpayers always seem to be angry while citizens are actively engaged in issues beyond dollars and cents.  Citizens want to make their communities better; taxpayers want to lessen the impact on their pocketbook.
  • I will try to be more community-minded and participate in initiatives that improve my community.
  • I will try to create an online presence through this blog and social media that is constructive.  I have been guilty of not doing this.

This list is not exhaustive and it’s not perfect.  It may not even ultimately be useful.  But it is a starting point.  I would love to hear what others are thinking on this.

Trump may be the beginning of the end but if we distract him long enough on Twitter, we might have a fighting chance of righting the ship.

 

Growing up with a ‘Big Brother’

Just before Christmas there was word that the Kamloops Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BBBS) program was experiencing some financial difficulties and was having to pause some of it’s programs until the funding situation clarified. More details on the situation can be read here (Article) but the news of what BBBS is facing caused me to reflect on my own experiences with having a Big Brother and the significant impact it had on my life and what an important program it is.

I grew up a single child of a single mom and grew up in what you would call poverty.  Recently, I wrote a blog post about my experience living in poverty growing up and noted that one of the things that helped me escape poverty was the support system around me. You can read the post here if you are interested (Post). One of the key supports I had was a Big Brother for much of my childhood.

I was around 7 years old when my mom first got me involved in the program. I remember vaguely the first time I met my Big Brother, Tim, at the Trenton BBBS office and we subsequently hung out together numerous times. I honestly don’t remember how long we remained a match but it wasn’t too long and Tim decided that with a changing life situation he needed to back out. I was pretty upset about this and I was asked whether I wanted another Big Brother. Eventually I said yes and I was matched with Cyril, probably when I was around 8 years old.

Cyril was a humble, happy-go-lucky guy probably in his late 20s when we got matched. He was living with his partner and they would subsequently get married. Because my childhood is a bit of a blur, I can’t remember a lot of the exact details of what we did together over the years but I recall going fishing, playing hockey on his backyard rink, watching his softball and broomball games, and hanging out in his shop where we made a book case for my mom. I remember a number of weekends just hanging out at his house and watching football. My first time fishing in a canoe (fun), ice fishing (cold, hence only time), and getting a birdie in golf (one of the few) were some of the experiences I got to share with Cyril. He was also my father stand-in for parent vs kids hockey games.

While the specific moments have faded somewhat, the overall experience has stayed with me and I think often of the times we had. My time spent with Cyril was pretty important to me. While my mom had a great boyfriend while I was growing up and he was a profound influence on me as were my aunt and uncle and cousins, I think it was important for me to have another role model that had interests that aligned more with my own. He liked sports and played them and I had an emerging interest in sports at that time. This was very important for me as many of the people in my life didn’t have the same depth of sporting interest as I did. Having a Big Brother was also a portion of my life that was exclusively mine and not my mom’s or anyone else’s. Through his playing of sports, it enabled me to see and interact with other men, and learn other aspects of maleness, the good and the not so good. I also got to witness as he started his own family and raise his kids and see another example of a father and how he expressed love to his kids. With the exception of my uncle, being around Cyril was one of the few opportunities for me to see fatherhood in action on a somewhat consistent basis when I was that age.

I am a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child and the Big Brother Big Sisters program helps fill a gap where it is more challenging to create that village for the child and connect them with more positive role models. Given the complexity in arranging well aligned and suitable matches, this takes a lot of resources as stated in the article I shared at the top. There are a lot of good charities that one can donate their money to and I can attest to the fact that Big Brothers and Big Sisters is one of them.

As a footnote to this, I lost touch with Cyril when I went away to university and subsequently moved to BC and hadn’t talked to him in about 20 years. My mom would periodically see him but even she had lost touch thinking that he had moved west. Apparently this wasn’t true and they ran into each other last year and long story short, he reached out to me and we have reconnected. It’s been great to catch up after all this time!

Reflections on growing up in poverty

Recently I have been reflecting a lot on the issue of poverty. In particular I have been thinking of my own experience growing up in poverty and wondering what factors led to me escaping poverty.

To provide you with some background I was the lone child of a single mom who was unable to work throughout my childhood. While she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, what she really had was pronounced clinical depression that, given the medical system’s understanding of mental illnesses at the time had her misdiagnosed and improperly treated for much of my childhood. Money came from Ontario’s Mothers Allowance program (welfare by a different name) and we lived in a small one bedroom, cockroach infested apartment – the building’s occupants included a hodgepodge of drug dealers, drug takers, welfare recipients, and single moms. I grew up in a small manufacturing town where poverty seemed to be all around.

So what helped in my journey out of poverty? First and foremost, while we had a poverty of income, I never experienced the more damaging poverty that can occur, which is a poverty of love and care. Despite the challenges my mom faced, I was always sure that she loved me and was in my corner. I never went hungry and I always had a home.

While love and care were vital, I realize there were some other things that helped including:

1. The Mothers Allowance program provided income stability. It wasn’t ever enough as we never had enough money to make it to the end of the month but it is interesting to note that the Mothers Allowance rates in Ontario in the 80s and 90s are not much different in absolute terms than what rates are currently in BC despite significant differences in cost of living and the impacts of inflation. It allowed us to live in the same apartment building for my whole life (my mom still lives there after 38 years). While the apartment building was sometimes sketchy, it was relatively safe and we didn’t ever have to move meaning I never had to switch schools.

2. We had other support – I was fortunate growing up, my mom had the same boyfriend for pretty much my whole childhood. Not only did he provide stability, he was able to provide us some financial support from time to time from his income. My aunt and uncle and their family also lived in town and I was able to hang out at their house from time to time and we also got financial support from them from time to time. In fact we lived with them when we first moved to Trenton. My mom also got me involved with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program and I had a big brother for much of my childhood who had a pretty big influence on me, particularly in terms of providing me a male role model. My mom was also able to get me into sports, particularly hockey, soccer and eventually golf (which was actually really cheap for a junior) which was vital to me developing other social connections and having another positive outlet for my energy.  In essence, the village reared the child and I was fortunate to have good people around me.

3. Education – access to education was very important for me to getting out of poverty. I was fortunate to start with, I excelled in school and generally enjoyed it so I didn’t need to be pushed to go. My mom also emphasized doing well in school – she had high expectations for me and I don’t know if it were ever in doubt in her mind and eventually my own that I would go to university despite any financial challenges we had – it never seemed out of reach and perhaps my naivety led to me having a $33,000 debt at the end of things but it was a pretty solid investment. Importantly there were also good programs for kids living in poverty to aid them in getting their education. Another often overlooked education support was that there was a bus to my elementary school every day and we lived across the street from my high school. Getting to and from school was really easy. I can’t overestimate how important this was for me – due to my mom’s misdiagnosed depression, getting out of the house on time was a challenge for her. I don’t know what would have happened if a school bus wasn’t provided that took me to my elementary school – it was probably a similar circumstance for many other kids living in my apartment building.

There are many other things that helped me emerge from poverty but these were the pretty important ones. You can also see some key themes from this. At an overarching level I was given a foundation from which I could succeed. I was lucky that I had a loving and caring mother and despite some of her challenges, she never faced issues with dangerous addictions and was relatively stable in her own way. In addition, there was great stability in income, educational support, positive social connections, and housing. Related to this was the fact that government support, while not enough, was more generous, because it is not enough for the government support to be stable, it also has to be adequate to pay for food and shelter and ensure that kids living in poverty have access to a good education.

This is a brief recap of my experience with poverty.  There is a tendency, as with most things, to try to homogenize experiences with poverty in order to develop policy and actions.  While the stats and the big picture is always important, it is just as critical that individual stories of poverty are told and successes and failures of poverty abatement are understood.  This is particularly important as many of the people that are shaping policy and programs do not have a lived experience with poverty.

My thoughts on the Hip and Gord

This whole past week I’ve wanted to write something about the Hip and what appears to be their last show and now it’s a few hours until the concert and I am scrambling.  I struggled to articulate feelings on this.  I am full of melancholy bordering on dread for tonight.  I am going to head down to a community viewing and I know I will get emotional – heck I’m already there.  I doubt I will be able to hold it together as Gord Downie stands alone for the last time in front of a large live audience, in his hometown, and experiences how our nation feels about him.  I imagine the roar in the arena in Kingston will be deafening.  Right now I am listening to Day for Night and the songs have changed from Inevitability of Death to Scared and for some reason that seems fitting.

While I am sure there will be tears, I must remember to celebrate.  We must celebrate that at least once in our country’s existence we have collectively appreciated artistic creativity.  We allowed a quirky, musical wordsmith to invade our conscious.  At the beginning of Live Between Us, Gord dedicates Grace Too to the Rheostatics saying ‘we are all richer for having seen them tonight.’ Well, our country has become richer for having seen the Tragically Hip for the last three decades.  Listening and reading stories the last few weeks remind me of the influence that Gord Downie has had on our nation.  The Hip is at least partially responsible for ensuring that an artist doesn’t have to make it abroad in order to have a living making original music – just that fact alone has been a cultural boon for our country and we must be thankful, regardless of our opinions of their music.

They have never been my favourite band but they have always had importance to me.  I have enjoyed singing and dancing along to their songs and parsing Gord’s lyrics for acute moments of brilliance that describe life and our country in different ways.  In some ways, specific lyrical moments have become a part of the sound track to view life from.  A few of my favourites include:

‘There’s nothing uglier than a man hitting his stride’ from Vapor Trails

‘I made degenerate art for the religious right on the day that you were born’ from Put it Off (I want to this on the day my theoretical child is born)

‘Me debunk an American myth, take my life in my hands’ as well as the whole bridge from At the Hundredth Meridian

‘Smart as tree in Sault Ste. Marie’ from Born in the Water

There are dozens more little snippets.  If you are a fan, you probably have your own list.  You get the picture.  Gord, through his wordiness and unique melody, has given us a chance to get smarter culturally and learn more about our country.  He has opened many doors for us to walk through.  Because of Courage I read Hugh Mclellan.  Because of Born in the Water I learned more about some ugly pieces of recent Canadian history. I looked up Eric’s Trip and Ry Cooder because of the name drops in songs.  The music inspired research because it was smart and tantalizing with clues to new and potentially obscure knowledge.

We owe Gord and tonight we get to maybe repay that with expressions of love and appreciation.  I was fortunate enough to see the Canadian Olympic gold medal hockey game on the streets of Vancouver in 2010.  I couldn’t even see the screen and only had a vague idea of what was going on in the game.  Yet it was a magical experience that I wouldn’t trade for a hi-def, 3D TV experience in my living room.  It drew us together as a nation and the opportunity to celebrate victory with 100,000 of my new best friends was such an amazing feeling.  Tonight will admittedly be an altogether different experience where there will be celebration mixed with a tinge of sadness as we know the outcome already.  But we will come together, a good chunk of our country, in common purpose and it will be our opportunity to celebrate a lyrical genius that served us well.

I leave this entry with a reiteration that I struggled writing this.  Others have not seemingly struggled nearly as much so if you are interested in going deep with your feelings, I suggest you read the following:

http://www.macleans.ca/culture/how-we-will-miss-gord-downie-and-the-tragically-hip/ – the notion that we must celebrate this tour and tonight.

http://www.cbcmusic.ca/posts/12527/collaborating-with-gord-downie-tragically-hip – on what it was like to collaborate with Gord Downie

http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/on-gord-downie-my-dad-and-taking-people-for-granted – a beautiful piece on how Gord’s illness compares to the author’s father’s illness and approaching those final moments with grace

http://hazlitt.net/feature/yer-favourites – this is likely the piece I would have liked to have written but Eric Koreen did a wonderful job and was way more articulate

And one last link to a video of Sarah Polley singing Courage from the movie the Sweet Hereafter – I remember an interview with Gord where he said that this was one of the few covers of their songs that he could stomach.  It’s beautiful and heart wrenching – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7oQ93GZSxk

ArtsWells – A Pilgrimage and a Love Affair

IMG_3520For the last four years, Leanne (my partner) and I have attended a magical little festival called ArtsWells which occurs in Wells, BC which is located about an hour east of Quesnel.  Wells is an enchanting place, a 1930s mining town that still retains many of the original structures that are used for their original purpose.  Seems like miners liked arts and entertainment back in the day.

Since I talk incessantly to my friends and colleagues about ArtsWells, I sometimes get asked what it is and I try to describe this love affair I have, but its hard because the festival is so much about the feeling that it generates and the emotional reactions it provokes and I am challenged to describe feelings.  While I often make a joke that it’s a festival where a bunch of tree planters and hippies get together to see a wide range of music being played (folk, rock, rap, and eclectic mixtures of everything else) and to party with old friends and new, I have also taken to describing ArtsWells as a pilgrimage.  Obviously part of this is due to how long it takes us to get there (it takes 7 hours to get there pulling our little trailer) but also because a pilgrimage is a journey that brings you to a spiritual place.

The spiritual element of ArtsWells for me is that once a year I get to re-open and expose parts of my mind and heart to an experience of joy, awe and wonderment as artists, audience, organizers, volunteers, town, and geography meld together in this unique community embrace.  At this year’s festival, this presence of spirit was exemplified at the Sunday morning soul music session held at an old church.  During this session a chorus of good singers (Leanne) and bad (yours truly), led by Coco Love Alcorn and Bocephus King (amazing singers and musicians) came together in harmony which really raised my spirits.  I left that session feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and the vibes are still resonating with me.  To describe my ArtsWells feelings another way, there are numerous times throughout the weekend that I am left with a crazy grin on my face because I just saw something mind blowing or experienced a moment of pure bliss.  That feeling often lingers beyond the end of the festival and sometimes I find it difficult to adjust to the day-to-day routine when we get home (taking a week of holidays afterwards eases the transition back).

There are so many ways to describe the spirit of ArtsWells.  One small example that stood out to me at this past festival occurred while watching a set by Sam Klass in the downstairs hall.  He was putting on a pretty cool show mixing guitar loops that he was creating with various beats when a 20 something year old girl in the audience who was dancing invited a younger girl (maybe 10 – 12 years old) to get up and dance with her and the crowd.  At first the girl was reluctant but once she got up, it was game on for her and her friends.  This simple act could be meaningless or could have the potential to be quite powerful depending on the situation of the kids and I am still in awe of it.  This leads to another observation – there are a significant number of babies, toddlers and younger children at the festival.  This exposure to cultural experiences and creativity at a young age provides some hope that the arts will remain strong in the future and continue to evolve.

Unlike other festivals where there are clear boundaries between the artists, organizers, and audiences, at ArtsWells those lines are seemingly blurred.  The interaction between audience and artists is significant, perhaps due to the fact that the artist to audience ratio is so high and that many of the stages are very intimate.  At ArtsWells, you are asked repeatedly to participate as an audience member.  This starts with the opening ceremonies where there is a smudging ceremony which leads into a parade led by an marching band through the town.  This sets the stage for everything else from singing to dancing to just being able to have quick chats with some of the musicians where you can actually tell them that you appreciate what they are doing.

Something else that is unique about the festival is that there are no headliners.  Sure the artists range in stature but there is no premiere slot at a premiere facility.  There are no extended sets for the artist that has the most sales or biggest name.  The schedule is seemingly drawn up for flow and practicality and not based on egos or record sales.  It gives the festival an egalitarian feel to it which helps to create community.  It can also lead to some wicked collaborations between the artists.  The most phenomenal collaborations and perhaps one of the most memorable things I have ever seen was a collaboration between Tanya Tagaq and CR Avery which occurred in the downstairs hall.   Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer she did about 40 minutes of throat singing that was one of the most beautiful, enthralling and horrifying musical experiences of my life that left me with a severe case of goosebumps.  It was fortunate that she had a disclaimer at the beginning of her show that whatever we heard, she was alright and that we shouldn’t be upset.  Anyways, after taking us through an epic musical journey, she brought up CR Avery who is a beat boxer and they did some kind of showdown for something like 10 minutes. The two artists just kept feeding off of one another, one beat boxing, the other throat singing, unleashing this powerful energy into the packed room.  It felt like they could make the room explode.  While I don’t have a particularly vivid memory, just thinking about that experience gives me goosebumps again.  This was all at a mid-afternoon show…

I may not be very worldly but most of the artists that participate in ArtsWells I have never heard of unless I have previously seen them at the festival.  Given that many of the artists are unknown to me other than a short bio in the festival program, there is a high likelihood that you are just going to stumble into something that you weren’t anticipating. The band Red Haven fits this bill for me.  At last year’s festival I probably would have never have wanted to see them based on the description in the program – really who wants to listen to a lot of sax-based music.  But I just happened to be in the upstairs hall when they were ripping through a set and was enthralled.  That is just one example of many I could cite.  Red Haven is now one of my go-to’s for music.

So this is getting long as blog posts go and I’ve reread and recrafted the previous paragraphs many times and they still fail to adequately capture the ArtsWells feeling.  All in all, perhaps it is just best leave this post by saying thank you to the founders and organizers of the festival, the good people of Wells who keep the town going and allow the population to swell by a factor of ten for a weekend, and most of all to the artists, who are creating and sharing – you are all very inspirational.  My fellow music and arts lovers must make this pilgrimage at least once in their lives!

Other suggested reading:

www.artswells.com (official website)

http://vancouverisawesome.com/2016/08/03/artswells-music-festival/ (cool blog article that is much more succinct and with pictures)