Monday, 25 November 2013

Advocacy Fatigue


  • I'm tired of winter
  • I'm tired of bad roads and icy sidewalks
  • I'm tired of "updates" that are really downgrades
  • I'm tired of my MLA not responding to my emails
  • I'm tired of cuts to public and post-secondary education 
  • I'm tired of not knowing if I will have a job next year

U of A motto:Whatsoever things are true, think on these things.
I keep lobbying for change.  I don't know why. Must have something to do with how I was raised.  I wrote letters to the premier, the U of A Board of Governors, and the Edmonton Journal about what the Alberta government was doing to post secondary education. My daughter said it gave her goosebumps.  No one from government or the U of A replied to my letter, but the Journal published it (after doing a butcher job on their edit.)  I petitioned for the Slave Lake air ambulance to be restored and it was. I work tirelessly for the things I believe in my personal life. But advocating for myself is strangely much more difficult.

I don't know what I am supposed to do about my job.  I think what I do matters. I think distance education, offered by certificated teachers, provides a vital service in our province.  I have seen it over and over again with my students- each one with an individual reason for learning at a distance instead of in the classroom. My professional association used to strongly disagree with the whole idea of distance education.  Now they see the threat of privatization they are singing a different tune. The government would just as soon see us go down. They cut funding to schools offering publicly funded distance education by 56% in their March budget. A couple of years ago a colleague was told by a government flunky that "there are organizations out there that are going to eat your lunch."  I'm not sure what that means.  But I don't want anyone eating my lunch.  It's mine!  I made it! I should get to eat it!  Maybe the dude was talking about the online cyber schools so prevalent in the US, owned by multimillionaires and operated for a profit.

I'm not any kind of conspiracy theorist, but when big business dumps millions into educational technology, bad online cyber-schools spread like weeds across the face of our southern neighbour, our government de-funds public distance education, promotes charter schools and has an ideology to privatize privatize privatize...what's a girl to think?

So I did what I always do when I think something is wrong.  I connected with people.  Former students.  Parents of students. Co-workers. Their stories gave me great encouragement that what I am doing is not lobbying for my own job, but lobbying for those individual kids and families whose needs are not met by traditional means, and whose needs will not be met by private businesses out to make a buck.

Feel free to lobby the government yourself.  ADLC supporters will be at the Alberta legislature on Saturday, November 30 at 3 p.m.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Without a History

Me and my mom in Trail B.C.
I've lost some things in the last little while.  My dad passed away; my kids moved on; my dogs died; a third of my town burned down and friends moved away. I miss what I've lost. But more than those- I miss my mom.

My mom has dementia. When I visit, she often does not know who I am. On some days, she doesn't remember who she is. She doesn't know her name. She asks whether she had ever been married and wonders if she had kids.

To help her with her memory loss, I have been working on a book about her life. As I scan photos and read old letters and news clippings and report cards, I wonder what to include and what to leave out. What really matters? What picture will strike a chord? What does she want to remember? What might she rather forget? And think about fact and fiction and memory and the area that lies in between-history.

One of a long line of independent women, second daughter of a Peace Country pioneer and an English banker, mom was an excellent student.  In her grade three report card from Monitor, Alberta, her teacher wrote "One of the best students I have ever seen." She graduated from high school in Edmonton at age 15 but her parents thought she was too young for university. She took a one year secretarial programme, then received a Bachelor of Commerce from the U of A, worked for the American Army during WW II, completed teaching stints in Grande Prairie and Athabasca, got her M Ed and then became girls counselor in Dawson Creek. She married my dad late in life and they raised four kids.
Family Camping Trip, 1967.
My mom was a dynamo when I was growing up. She kept herself busy not just with being a mom and the wife of the high school principal, but also with a myriad of community projects, mostly related to things we were involved with. Masterminding the costumes of the figure skating carnival, running the marshaling area at swim meets, organizing the hospital auxiliary's candystripers, hosting Dad's staff parties and grad breakfasts and countless church events.  She went back to work when I was 16, first teaching ESL, then sewing, law and math.

Dad and Mom
After her move to Tumbler Ridge, she was the school and community librarian. Retirement was embraced with the energy only a teacher could bring to the job, fundraising for a swimming pool, involvement in the arts, horticulture, a new museum, the annual craft fair and whatever else she could think of. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal. Today Tumbler Ridge boasts Hartford Gardens, Hartford Court senior's housing, and the Hartford Citizenship Award. The Vancouver Province called her a "sprightly octogenarian" -a description that appalled her-when she organized what was then the world's largest potluck dinner.  Shortly after that event, she developed in short order breast cancer, an autoimmune response leading to permanent nerve damage in her hands and feet, pneumonia, and finally had a stroke, accompanied by creeping memory loss. Throughout it all my dad was by her side. When he got sick, they moved to Victoria to be closer to a hospital. Then my dad died. Mom now lives with a caregiver in a house a few blocks from my brother.

These are the facts of my mom's life.  But history is more than facts. History can only ever be a version of the truth, reliant on the perspective of memory. In the absence of my mom's memories, I substitute my own. In that version of my mother's story, she was a brilliant, driven and creative woman. Her exhausting schemes were accomplished through her skills of organization and the ability to delegate- and compensate when delegation failed. We would fend for ourselves when one of her projects was underway, scrambling when we heard the dreaded call "all hands on deck!" She was and is not an affectionate woman. I can't remember being hugged. I know she loved me but she never once told me so. Neither was she sentimental, nor was she introspective. Despite her great talents, she lacked self confidence. She was shy yet frequently pushed my brother and me into situations that made us uncomfortable. My dad used to joke that after retirement people called him "George" while she was still "Mrs. Hartford." Fiercely possessive of her own family, she did not willingly share us with anyone. She never warmed to any of my dad's charming siblings. When one of her children brought home a potential spouse it was never easy.  My husband and I were married for two years before we were given a room with a double bed. Two months after our marriage Mom announced that she'd had a dream in which I had married Stalin.

I miss my mom.  I miss her amazing talents as well as her exasperating qualities. I miss the woman who would switch positions in an argument just to keep things interesting.  The lady who read everything in sight, including cereal boxes and the newspapers meant to light the campfire. The woman who organized spectacular parties for me as a child, but forgot my birthday when I was grown up; the lady who hosted dinners for 60, often leaving the cleanup to others; the lady who sewed me a gorgeous wedding gown, but did not finish it until the guests began to arrive; the lady who would have laid down her life for her grandchild but could never have loved her son-in-law no matter what. As I am driven by the currents of my own history and genetics, I see some of those traits in myself. I am powerless to stop them.

What version of you remains after your memories go? Without your history, who are you? Is it your truest self that is left behind? Or is it some pale imitation of the you that used to be? Is that why we, as humans, strive to preserve our memories in photos, art, literature, film and storytelling? I know, in part, that is why I am creating this book.  My own memories, as well as my mom's, are contained on its pages.
My mom and my sister looking at the book. Christmas 2013.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Give Thanks

I wrote this piece long ago when my kids were very young. It was the first article published in the now-defunct Edmonton Journal column “Voices” and simultaneously, in the Ontario based “Rural Roots” magazine. A lot has happened since then. I no longer live near the family farm; my dad is gone; my mom has dementia and sometimes does not recognize me; one of my own daughters lives in England. Thanksgiving dinners are much smaller. It’s my cousin Kerry who now brings the sweet potatoes, I make the Harvard beets, and there are no homemade buns. And I will give thanks.

                    THANKSGIVING HERITAGE 

Granddad carves the turkey:1959.
Every Thanksgiving weekend my parents used to take us to buy potatoes.  We would drive down a winding gravel road to a market garden not far from my grandparents' farm. Mr Guest would start up his potato digging machine and we would follow along behind, filling our burlap sacks with cold, hard potatoes. The air was crisp and the sky intensely blue above the translucent yellow of the poplar leaves. When the station wagon was loaded and Dad was settling the bill, we would race down to the Wapiti River to skip stones, our hearts full of childish joy. The last rays of the sun filtered over the stubble in the wheat fields as we drove back up my grandparents' place, dreaming of the feast to come.

We don't make the trip to Wapiti Gardens anymore, but this Thanksgiving, family and friends will once again gather to share a traditional turkey dinner. Sarah will bring the sweet potato casserole, Doris will bring her freshly baked buns, Sheila will bring her Harvard beets. We'll exchange small talk and "stuff ourselves most shocking," as my great-aunt Isabel says, just as we have done since my ancestors first came to the Peace Country as pioneers in the early part of this century.

Thanksgiving is not entirely good memories for us, however. Several years ago the customary meal was almost cancelled. Our close-knit family had been struck by one tragedy after another that year. My grandfather had died in the spring, after a long and painful struggle with his heart. A few days after his death, my aunt died suddenly following surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm. Then my brother, just seventeen, got into serious trouble with the law and was treated most unfairly by the justice system. In late September, my cousin Geordie was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. He was thirty-four and had two small children.

My grandmother, Marion Martin.
My aunts, who had hosted the harvest meal for many years, decided to not to have it. "We don't feel that we have much to be thankful for," they said. The rest of us agreed, until my grandmother set us straight. Like her Scottish forbears, my grandmother was a woman of few words. She was not prone to emotional outbursts or harsh judgments, but when she spoke, we listened.  "We will have Thanksgiving this year," she said. "Every day is a gift."

I don't remember that Thanksgiving dinner, although we did have one. I do remember Geordie's funeral two weeks later, so many people in attendance they had to stand on the lawn. I remember neighbours and relatives working late into the night in order to harvest what was left of his crop. My heart was full on that day.

My grandmother died the January after Geordie. She was not rich in material things, and I received no cash settlement, no antique jewels, or real estate. Yet this year, as I look at the ever-changing configuration of faces around the supper table, I will be giving my thanks. Not for money or possessions, or the bountiful harvest, not for the pumpkin pie, or the Harvard beets, but for my family and for every day we have shared. That thankfulness is my inheritance from my grandmother, and I could wish for nothing finer.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

This is what democracy looks like

If you read my June post, you'll know that Alberta Health Services planned to shut down the Slave Lake air ambulance and centralize services to other communities, adding critical minutes to flight times and leaving Slave Lake and area residents with limited ground ambulance services in case of inclement weather.  Our people rallied, sent letters, emails, phoned, and signed a petition.  Our local government repeatedly requested meetings with our MLA and the minister, to no avail.  Then out of the blue our mayor was informed that the decision had been reversed. Were our voices heard?  Or were there inner workings that we are not aware of that led to this decision?

Back in December, there was a big announcement that a number of petroleum producers were donating money to a Slave Lake legacy project that would include a daycare and theatre/arts space.  A couple of weeks ago our local Tri-Council voted on the architect's proposal that included a lovely daycare and an improved Elks hall but none of the features one would expect in a theatre or arts space. Again, lobbying.  This time by local dance, music, theatre, and arts groups as well as concerned community members. Letters were written. Funding avenues were explored. Dollars were pledged.  Needs were expressed. A presentation to town council, then to Tri-Council. Success!

It almost gives you reason to hope. Almost.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Fruit-seller, Delhi.
We stare at each other through the window, the fruit-seller and I.  I stand with espresso in hand: he guards his cart of exotic fruit.  As we stand there for a silent moment on this, my last day in Delhi, I think to myself: other than a plate of floor to ceiling glass, what separates me from him?
Geography led my ancestors to flee their overpopulated nation and colonize a new homeland, while his country was taken over. Geography enriched my nation with natural resources, and left his with less. Geography makes my land sparsely populated while his is one of the most crowded in the world. Geography led us to a reality in which my morning coffee, consumed in air-conditioned comfort, costs more than the fruit seller will earn in an entire day beneath sweltering Indian skies.

Shanghai, 1984
I met my husband in Shanghai just as China was opening itself up to the west. Every summer, often accompanied by our children, we travel.  Beyond the sites, cultures and people, we've shared many experiences that have shaped our worldview.  We've debated what to do when beggars ask for food for their children; been robbed by corrupt police; gritted our teeth over unnecessary bureaucratic complexities; witnessed the long term effects of genocide, civil war, natural disaster, economic collapse, and terrorism. We've seen how people live their lives under communism, unregulated capitalism, in dictatorships, police states, theocracies and corrupt “democracies”.  But India? India was mind-blowing. 

Mumbai Pavement Dwellers.
Culturally and linguistically more diverse than the entire continent of Africa, India is faced with enormous challenges. Although the food is fabulous, although men like the fruit-seller stock wonderful varieties of produce, although India ranks second in the world for agricultural output, 55% of India’s children suffer from malnutrition. Home to one third of the world’s poor, India defines extreme poverty (experienced by 138 million of its citizens) as living on 44 Canadian cents a day in a nation where just one cheap meal costs 31 cents. In an economy with impressive growth rates, disparity is all around.  Slums beside elegant apartment complexes; pavement dwellers living on sidewalks just meters away from prestigious hotels. The economic boom has bypassed most Indians. Income disparity has doubled over the past 20 years and it’s estimated that by the year 2015 one quarter of India’s people will still be living in extreme poverty. Everywhere we go we see men, men and more men.  Where are the women?  Although female infanticide and gender-selective abortion are illegal, there are presently 37 million more men than women in India. In the 0-6 age group, there are 7 million fewer girls than boys. One woman is killed over a dowry dispute every hour.

On this, my last day in Delhi, I ponder these things. Alongside India’s beauty there is an ugliness that is in your face every minute of every day and while it may not be my place to judge, I can question. I can question how people in a democracy allow such disparity. I can wonder how mothers choose to abort their daughters.  I can marvel at how both men and women tolerate such inequality. And I can wonder, as I watch the fruit-seller watch me through that place glass window, does he think about my life as much as I think about his?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

When you're a Northerner

Slave Lake on fire,  May 16 2011 Courtesy L Ramsey
When you live in a rural northern community, you’re vulnerable.  You’re vulnerable to fires and floods and insects.  You’re vulnerable to the unpredictable weather, the vagaries of the economy, the transient nature of your friendships as people come and go. Sometimes you’re trapped by highway closures.  And you put up with these things, because that’s what it means to live in the north. You put up with unreliable internet, limited public transportation, bad roads and the increased likelihood of highway accidents, few restaurants, limited cultural opportunities. You watch your kids go away to school because that’s where the universities are. And you put up with these things, because you’re a northerner.  You’re strong. You don’t complain. When there’s nothing to do, you make your own fun.  When there aren’t good restaurants, you learn how to cook. When you need something, you ask for help-even from total strangers.  You use your ingenuity to overcome the roadblocks that nature and geography has thrown in your way.  And even though you work as hard or maybe harder than your urban southern neighbours and you don’t get the same benefits from your tax dollar as they do, you put up with your challenges because you’re a northerner. That’s what you do.

Courtesy Nik Neville
But after a while it starts to wear on you.  You discover that your hospital no longer has an anesthesiologist or a surgeon, and you get a bit worried. When you learn that young women who are expecting their first child have to go to Edmonton to give birth, and their families have to take days off work and stay in hotel so they can be with them, that doesn’t seem right.  And then your government decides the medevac centre needs to be moved further from the city hospital, adding crucial time to emergency transport, that kind of gets under your skin. And when you find out your town is losing its air ambulance “to serve you better” and they’re moving your own air ambulance to a the city where no one uses an air ambulance because they actually live where the hospitals are and now the time to hospital is at least another hour, well- that just kind of makes you mad.
So you do what your social studies teacher told you.  You contact people.  You call your MLA but she doesn’t return your message.  You contact the Minister of Health and you don’t hear back.  You talk to opposition MLAs- still nothing. You find out your local government hasn’t been consulted and they are calling for a face to face meeting, and nothing is done. You talk to Alberta Health Services and they stick to their talking points that “this is better for all Albertans”.  So you start a petition and within a week, 1200 people have signed it.  Many of these people have their own stories about how their lives were saved by air ambulance.  They’re mad.  They contact their politicians.  But no one answers their pleas.

So what do you do?  You rely on your northern ingenuity. You rally.  You stick together.  You fight for what you deserve. Because you’re northerners.  And that’s what you do.

Friday, 26 April 2013

now is not the time

Now is not the time
Now is not the time
Now is not the time to commit sociology
Now is not the time to talk about gun control 
Now is not the time to buy super bowl XLVII tickets
Now is not the time for reckless opportunistic experiments
Now is not the time to give money to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
Now is not the time to ship Canadian beef south to the United States
Now is not the time to discuss the 'political aftermath’ especially when your theories are ludicrous
Now is not the time
Now is not the time
Now is not the time for clich├ęs
Now is not the time for subtlety
Now is not the time to give up on me
Now is not the time for dick measuring
Now is not the time to wonder why you do it
Now is not the time to go down memory lane
Now is not the time to talk yourself out of your goals and dreams
Now is not the time for fear.  That will come later.

now is not the time…now is not the time…now is not the time…

Now is not the time

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Private Lives of Teachers

Aerial photo of Slave Lake on fire, May 15 2011.
The last couple of months have been kind of weird for me.

Since the Slave Lake fires of 2011, my husband and I and our local newspaper editor and a local forestry educator have been writing a book.

The Sky was on Fire: Slave Lake's Story of Disaster, Exodus and New Beginnings was self published in December.  We've sold close to 3000 copies so far and the book has been either number one or number two on the Edmonton non-fiction best seller list for each of the four weeks it has been for sale in that city at Audrey's Books and the Royal Alberta Museum.

Writing the book was an amazing amount of work- every evening, hours out of each weekend, vacation days.  All of it volunteer labour. Selling has been easier, but time-consuming- late afternoons, evenings and weekends delivering, packing and shipping orders, making bank deposits, and promoting sales.

It's hard to say why we worked so hard on this book.  Seeing your whole community on fire, realizing that your own house and all your worldly goods could be gone, and wondering how many of your friends and neighbours must surely have perished is life altering. Hearing the stories of escape, near-death experiences, and unthinking acts of selflessness performed by average people is something that changes your worldview.   The book was our way of paying tribute to those who lost so much and carried on with their lives.  It is a testament to the unsung heroes to whom the book is dedicated. But beyond being a piece of Alberta history, we think the book tells a universal story of resilience and community-our way of saying, "Look at what happened to us! Look at the strength of the human spirit!"

It does not surprise me that the book is a best seller.  People tell us it's well written and beautifully produced. Thanks to a grant from Alberta Culture, it's affordable.  The strange thing is the almost complete lack of interest from the media.  Apart from one interview with CTV, a network that seems invested in our Slave Lake story, and a short piece in metronews, no one in the media seems to care. Is the Slave Lake story too old to be news? Is it too local?  Is the fact we self published the book part of the problem?  These are questions this social studies teacher cannot answer.

Students, teachers, and support staff feature prominently in our book of stories, although they are not named by their occupation. Teachers helped fight the fire, school employees "stole" the school buses that evacuated seniors from town, a custodian assisted with checking basements for bodies. Dozens of teachers and teaching assistants lost their homes, and yet in the face of their own losses, worked to restore a sense of normalcy for their students in the days and weeks following the fire. "Lost and Found in the Fire" - the first thing I wrote about the event- was published in the A.T.A. News in late May of 2011. The English Language Arts teachers of Alberta did a fundraiser for our book. And the A.T.A. News most graciously agreed to help promote the book in their next issue. Proceeds from the book will go towards a scholarship for students pursuing an education in the arts.

The Sky was on Fire can be purchased online at