Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Spirit of Christmas

Where would Christmas be without traditions? Our lives revolve around little customs and rituals that have evolved through the years, like decorating gingerbread houses, skating parties with Santa, and -you know what I'm going to say- the ever-popular and much maligned "Christmas concert." Perhaps as you are reading this you are heaving a sigh of relief because yours is over for another year, or cursing at the very thought of another class of tiny tots holding up construction paper letters to the glare of a thousand flashes and the hum of a hundred video cameras.

Christmas concert memories from my teaching days have all blurred together, except for one, the concert held in the small northern community where we lived many years ago.

"It's always been a tradition for our school to host a Christmas concert," our principal told us. "The community expects it, and I guarantee you will see parents there who would never attend interviews or meet-the-teacher-night. A few years ago we put on a musical, `The Littlest Angel.' We held auditions and practiced after school. Actually, I directed it. It was great. Having one school event is hard work, but it frees up class time for students who need extra help. Of course, being principal and all, I don't have time to direct it myself, but think about it."

After the staff unanimously turned this idea down in two seconds, we decided to go with the usual format. For the kindergartens and grade ones, it was easy. Does it really matter what they do? Who can resist thirty little ones in their Christmas finery, up on stage for the first time? The grade two-three class got their hands on a super musical about Santa and his snowmobile, which they performed with a beautiful wooden skidoo built by one of the dads. The grade three-fours did some skits they wrote themselves, and the five-sixes sang a couple of carols with their classroom assistant, a talented local musician.

But what was I to do? The seven-eight-nines thought the whole concept of a concert too juvenile for words. "Can't we just set up the chairs and pull the curtain open and closed?" One suggested. "We'll serve refreshments," another offered. "Do we have to?" In their own adolescent way, I knew they wanted to be a part of the evening, but they just couldn't figure out how. As the day of the concert drew frighteningly nearer, I tried to get creative. "You could write your own play about what Christmas in the north is like?" No way. "How about an air band with some contemporary holiday music?" Well, way. "What if you read and acted out `The Night Before Christmas'?" Forget it. "Okay, break into small groups and brainstorm your own ideas. But we have to put something on."

Imagine my astonishment when the final decision was handed down. "We want to read the story of Christmas from the Bible and act it out." This from a bunch of 12-18 year olds whose behaviour had caused the local nuns to cancel their religious instruction class? This from the group of wild and rebellious young offenders who had named their class `The Exterminators'? The Christmas story?

And so it was that the next week of afternoons were spent in a frenzy of tempera and tinsel. Helen and Susan painted brilliant backdrops in the style of Ted Harrison, Lorraine and others prepared their angel wings, Curtis practiced his humble bow as a wise man and Eddy and Eugene sorted through tea towels and rummaged for bathrobes befitting a native shepherd. Myra, a grade seven who had startling just burst into womanhood, rehearsed her lines- and Cindy volunteered to open and close the curtains.

The concert itself was bedlam. The classroom rang with last minute threats to back out by the principal players, screams that halos were misplaced, the baby for the manger couldn't be found, and where was Myra?

The community turned out in full force to watch, although the adults in the audience could have used a few lessons in concert hall etiquette. Dads wandered out for a smoke in the middle of songs, aunties gossiped with other aunties, moms visited the bathroom and shouted at their children at inappropriate times, but the kids were perfect. They shone with a glow more perfect than anything the makeshift spotlights could provide.

The next year, there was a new principal. In his wisdom he decided that given the chaos of the previous concert, the school would not host another. The stressed out staff did not protest. I never found out what the people in the community thought, and maybe they didn't care, but I know the kids missed their concert. They seemed to be the only ones who knew what it was all about.

Originally published in the ATA News, December 10 1997.

Of Yoga Pants and Ideologies

So I have this activity in Social 30-1.

I ask kids to go to this website called and enter the term "ideology" and see what comes up.  Spezify uses some kind of algorithm to search certain areas of the web comes up with a visual display of images, quotes, websites and videos around your term.  

It's kind of an interesting activity as many different things come up and no two kids get exactly the same result.  You might get a meme of Will Smith, the cover of a textbook about Chairman Mao, or a thought provoking quotation or a beautiful photo. It gets students thinking out of the box or so I hope.

I've had this activity in my online course for a few years. I never get any comments on it. Then a few days ago a kid emailed me and said "I don't get the point of this spezify thing. I did it and all I got was pictures of yoga pants. That is not helpful to my thinking."  So I tried the thing and it worked normally. But I figured something was up, dug around a bit and sure enough if lululemon doesn't have yoga pants called "ideology." Five star yoga pants no less.

What's the connection between ideology and yoga pants? Clever branding is what I am sure the genius marketers at lululemon think.  I mean, how cool are ideologies? They can imply that yoga (in expensive pants) is the core of your belief system.Core values that influence the political and economic system you believe in. And if their consumers have no clue what an ideology is, by co-opting the term maybe they will seem politically aware.

I wonder if Rachel Notley wears ideology yoga pants as part of her Sunday workout?  Or does she wear something union made? And when she runs, do her body guards go with her?

Spezify "Rachel Notley" and see what comes up. Ugliness that make me ashamed to be an Albertan. Ugliness that reminds me Rachel was not wrong when she said Alberta is "the embarrassing cousin no one wants to talk about."  She might have been referring to Alberta's record on the environment, but with every word and every meme produced by Alberta's Wildrose supporters, I am reminded that Albertans have plenty to be ashamed of.

Ideologies are not pretty things. No matter what pants they are wearing.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Land of the Free

When I was a kid, my brothers and sister and I spent a lot of time on our grandparents' farm.

One of our favourite things to do was play in the granary full of canola, or rapeseed as we called it then. We would climb up the homemade ladder on the outside of the wooden building, climbing far over our own heads, jumping into the pile of shiny little black seeds. We would see how far down we could wiggle and still pull ourselves out again.  It was a ton of fun. We didn't think of the danger. Every now and then Granddad would say, "You kids aren't playing in the rapeseed, are you?"  "No," we would say. Thinking we weren't supposed to be in there because we might reduce the quality of his harvest.

So when I heard about the three little girls who were killed, it was chilling. I knew that could have been me slipping down under the seeds, unable to pull myself up. My brothers following in a desperate attempt to save me, perishing in the same way, suffocating under all those little black seeds.

We never thought of the farm as dangerous. It was home. It was familiar. We collected eggs and fed chickens and found the barn cats and their kittens. We leaped from the hay loft. We climbed as high as we could on the stacks of hay bales. Once a mouse ran up the inside of my brother's pants and that was hilarious. We wandered around the cows and horses. Swam in the river. Played on the old tractor and in pickup truck.  Dressed up in old clothes. Picked wild strawberries and saskatoons. Slept overnight in the old bunkhouse, loading up the airtight heater to the point it glowed red. It was a place where we were free.

My grandfather
My parents and grandparents were not risk-takers. They were not in any way casual in the way they raised us. We were warned about certain things. We learned a healthy respect for machinery. We knew which animals to avoid. We weren't allowed to swim unsupervised until we reached a certain skill level. We had a healthy fear of crossing the highway where my grandmother herself died. So I understand when people say they are angry about Bill 6. I really do. I understand resenting any implication that farm parents don't teach their children safety skills. The family farm is their home and they believe they and their employees and their kids are safe. They don't want anyone setting safety standards for them, any more than I would want someone telling me how to store my kitchen knives or the propane for my barbecue.

But the facts are the facts. As idyllic as farm life may seem, a farm is also a work-site. It contains far more dangers than a house. Should we romanticize a way of life that includes death and injury without recourse for the victims? Five children died on family farms last year. The three girls in the canola. A ten year old boy driving a forklift. These children were not safe.  They were denied the opportunity to continue the way of life their parents hold dear.

In high school Social Studies we look at many issues when it comes to liberty.

We look at the degree to which we should sacrifice individual rights and freedoms for security. We give up our individual right to drive as fast as we can or drive while impaired to ensure traffic safety. We give up our right to carry a pair of scissors onto a plane for public security. We give up our right to smoke in a public place so others will be free from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. We give up privacy every time a CCTV camera is focused our way. It's part of living in a civilized society where the rights of the community take precedence over the freedoms of a few.

We also look at positive and negative freedoms. Freedom from and freedom to. The owner of a family farm may want freedom from government interference. But an employee or a child deserves the freedom to be safe. The freedom to say no when asked to perform dangerous tasks. The freedom to financial security if an accident occurs. The freedom to grow up.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The places in between

I'm supposed to teach my students "historical thinking skills."  I'm not 100% sure what that means. I know it doesn't mean memorizing facts from the past. It's more about understanding how the past influenced the present, cause and effect, intended and unintended consequences, contextualizing events, worldviews, who benefited and who gained, and trying to understand the world through the eyes of those who went before.

As with a lot of my teaching, if you can call what I do that, I hope students will find that there is very little black and white in history, just as there is very little today that is clearly 100% right or wrong. Globalization, nationalization and ideologies all have their reasons and their varying impacts on the worlds' peoples, for good or ill.

The Industrial Revolution, for instance. Child labour, atrocious working conditions, terrible living conditions. The end of the feudal system. The end of cottage industries. Urbanization. Increasing employment. The beginnings of organized labour. Public education. Universal suffrage. Human rights.

Stuff gets lost along the way of history and "progress"- whatever that means. Other stuff is gained. The world is always changing and we change with it.
And that brings me to Madagascar.
It is a dreadfully poor place, statistically and in almost every visible way. Poverty is all around you. Malnutrition. Stunting. Village after village made of bricks or sticks. Mile after mile where you don't see even one manufactured product, not even a tarp to protect you from the sun or the wind. Women scrubbing their garments in the river and spreading them to dry on stubble-covered hillsides.People pulling plows by hand. Shops whose sole product is a thermos of coffee and a glass to drink it from.
In a way, it is like stepping back into history, into a medieval era before mechanization and technology and the mass production of goods.  And you, as a wealthy first world tourist, ride by in your air-conditioned SUV time machine, watching how people used to live, back in the dark ages.

The poverty you see is not the result of any one historical event. It may be the result of colonialism, economic imperialism, tribalism and corrupt political systems. One thing you know for sure is, it's not the result of laziness.
Here you see barefoot men running as fast as they can pulling "pousse pousses" -a fancy name for a rickshaw, a device that has been banned in many countries. The men run because if they don't get you to you destination faster than you could by walking, why would you hire them?  And you ask yourself, "Should I hire a pousse pousse?" Because it seems so wrong to be pulled from place to place by a barefoot man when you could just as easily walk. But if you don't hire the pousse pousse, who will? Will the man and his family starve? Because what other labour is there to do?

Here you will children walking along rural and city roads, balancing water jugs on their heads because there is no running water in their homes. Indeed, even most health clinics do not have potable water. You see women and children balancing impossibly huge bags of charcoal. They haul these to their homes or to the market to sell.  Children shouldn't have to work this hard.  But if they don't, where will the heat come from for their mothers to heat their homes and cook their meals?

Here you see the $7 billion Ambatovy mine, a joint venture, 40% owned by Canada's Sherritt along with other partners. It is the largest single employer in the country with a workforce that is 84% Malagasy according to the project's website. It employs hundreds of foreign workers who make significantly more than their Malagasy counterparts. It's a secretive operation, with most of its action hidden high in the highlands around Moramanga and the rest behind a guarded wire fence. Foreign owned companies contributed the capital and the know-how to make the mine work. Madagascar provides the raw materials and the labour force. In exchange for the extraction of raw materials, Madagascar receives 1% in royalties and the employment of many of its citizens.

Yet without Ambatovy, thousands would be unemployed.

The uncomfortable place between right and wrong, past and present, progress and regression.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

With Regret

Is it a cultural thing, this need to find someone or something to blame?

Why do we feel the need to find a cause for every effect? 

Is it human nature to lash out at a specific person when we are hurt and angry? Is is somehow normal to find someone we can make responsible for our suffering?

Certainly, there are reasons for things. Global warming contributes to climate change. Drunk drivers kill people. Sex gets you pregnant. Arsonists start fires. It's important to know those things and take responsibility when we are part of the problem.

But often there is a host of complex global factors that contribute to events. In Alberta we are experiencing a serious downturn in the economy due to the the declining price of oil. Who is to blame? Some blame the government or even the premier herself. Yet there are dozens of reasons why this has occurred. The impact of any one individual, even the premier of a province, is negligible.

There are other things that just happen. Things that are are no one's fault. Natural disasters, illnesses, accidents and the unexplained. 

Yet we still want to find someone to blame. We blame our boss, our co-workers, our community, our parents or others close to us. 

And we blame ourselves.
  • I didn't work hard enough.
  • I work too hard.
  • I should have studied more.
  • I should have taken that job offer.
  • I shouldn't have taken that job offer.
  • I'm not smart enough.
  • I never should have gone out with that guy.
  • I'm lazy.
  • I'm a loser for being depressed.
Teachers are among the worst people out there when it comes to blaming themselves. They frequently take responsibility when their students don't learn or don't behave or don't "succeed" yet rarely if ever do they take credit when their students achieve.

You've seen the memes. The memes that tell you everything that is wrong is your own fault. The memes that suggest that the world out there has nothing to do with what happens in your life. It's all on you. 

Tell that to my daughter who wakes up every day wondering if she still has a job in the oil industry. Tell that to my sister who lost her house when B.C.'s coal mines closed. Tell that to the poor of Madagascar who labour night and day for a dollar. Tell that to the Syrian refugees, trapped between their repressive government and ISIL. 

Why do we beat ourselves up in a thousand ways for the things we didn't do that we should have done, the things we could have done better, the things we should never have done? Our self abuse leads to spiraling self recrimination and guilt that causes anxiety, depression and a deteriorating sense of self worth. 

Stuff happens in life. Things that are not your fault. Things that aren't any one person's fault. They just happen. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

not today

November 13, 8 p.m.

We're walking the dogs.

That's a lot smoke, my husband says.

Haven't heard any sirens, I say.

Then they start. A lot of them. We look up the street. Blue and red flashing lights everywhere.

Uncomfortable silence. We pick up the pace. Even the dogs seem more agitated than usual.

Finally he says it.

That's where the mosque is.

We walk faster. Like there is anything we could do.

The fire trucks come blasting down the highway and turn into town.

The mosque burned down once before back when it was out of town. Arson was suspected, I recall.

In my head ...don't let it be the mosque don't let it be the mosque don't let it be the mosque.

We cut the walk short and head through the park. The mosque is standing. A couple of vehicles in the parking lot.

It's house fire a block away. EMS standing guard at the end of the street gives us the idea no one was hurt. By the time we get home the fire chief has already tweeted the house fire has been put out and all loss stopped.

No one likes to hear there's a house fire. Especially not in my town.

But it wasn't the mosque. Thank God for that.

Not my town.

Not today.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

For Fuzz

Burns Foster
My dad always called him Fuzz.  He never explained why. It wasn't until years later when Fuzz and his wife Kay came for a visit that we learned his name was Burns. Kay did not call him Fuzz any more than my mom called my dad "Ginge"- which was the name Burns called my dad. This was mystifying for us kids because Fuzz was the guy who featured in many of Dad's stories as bomb-aimer of their Lancaster "S for Smitty". Burns was someone else altogether.

My dad was a pilot in World War II. Fuzz was a bomb-aimer who described his job on the plane as follows:

“Fuzz”, Burns Wilfred Foster, Bomb-aimer, probably caused more disturbance than the others. He sat beside the skipper and shoved the throttles through the gate on take-off; took a position beside the navigator and behind the pilot to operate Gee and H2S and pass fixes to the navigator; down to the bomb hatch to fuse bombs upon crossing the enemy coast; drop window (foil strips) to confuse enemy radar, give the pilot directions to the target—steady,steady, left left steady, push the button and wait before calling bombs bays closed. Much the reverse on the way home.
Burns far left and my dad third from the right.

I think about Dad and Fuzz and their navigator Doug as they once were, bright Canadian boys barely out of high school. How young they were. How eager. I picture them flying through the dark skies over Europe, skies pierced by searchlights, holding their breath as they prayed to escape detection by the enemy. As they watched one plane after another fall in front of them, at some point did they think their luck would run out? I imagine Fuzz and Dad and Doug working in a kind of strange rhythm that must have developed over their many missions, reacting to whatever came at them. Hoping their bombs would hit the target. Mission after mission, returning unscathed. My dad's neat notes in his log book tell a tiny part of the story in his own perfect block letters, "FLAK HOLES IN KITE."  "SAW FIVE KITES SHOT DOWN, 2 CHUTES OPEN." On D-Day "GOOD TRIP EXCELLENT NAV. BRIDGE AND HIGHWAY." "WELL PRANGED." Once in awhile "RESULTS DOUBTFUL" and once "WE DID IT AGAIN!"

I imagine the adrenaline rush. The camaraderie. The joy and relief after a safe landing. And I wonder too, did they dare dream of the future that they might never experience?  

These life and death experiences must surely have shaped the men that they became. Confidence, faith, civic-mindedness and compassion were qualities they all came home with. An appreciation for what they had. And friendships that lasted a lifetime. Dad and Fuzz had a special connection in those exciting years in 419 Moose Squadron. Their experiences in the air created a bond as did their time away from their missions. 
The home of Gwen Smith in the Lake District.
On leave they once spent time on an estate in the Lake District. My dad boasted that he had once played on the same pool table as Winston Churchill. I wonder if Fuzz was with my dad the time these gullible young lads met some girls in the pub-perhaps the infamous "Oak Tree" down the road- girls who told them they would meet them in church the next day. The boys showed up and the girls never arrived.

Burns was not the youngest of my dad's crew as I once thought- he says he had five months at least on my dad and Pete was younger yet. He went on to become a pharmacist in Ontario and had a couple of kids and now grandchildren and great grandchildren. My parents received Christmas cards and letters from them every year. Once they came to visit. Years later we drove across Canada and met them. I know very little about him but I know he is a good man who has lived a good life.

Every June 6, Burns used to phone my dad. They talked about their families and their lives. They caught up with stories about the rest of the crew. I don't know if they ever talked about what they did on that fateful day-D-Day-a day that changed the course of history. Did they reminisce about their flight over the coast of Normandy or the bridge they bombed, the night they flew so low they could feel the bomb blast in the cockpit? Did they recall their amazement as they looked down on the ships that filled the English Channel on their return flight? 

I contacted Burns when my dad passed away and every now and again I hear from him. An email entitled, "Love of my life" telling me that Kay, to whom he had been married for 72 years, had died. Another time, an apology, saying that even though his picture had been in his local paper as being a "tech savvy senior" he did not know how to accept my accidental LinkedIn request. More than once he has complimented me on my blog and thanked me for being my father's daughter because "that, of course, is how I make the connection." That is a kindness not many would think of. Burns and I were both excited to hear from the grandson of the one missing member of the air crew. John Knox junior had read my blog. I sent him photos he had never seen. Burns shared stories with him. In my Dad's absence, Burns and I speculated about why their old wireless operator had fallen out of touch. 

Now, every June 6, Burns reads my blog and sends me an email. Perhaps I am the only connection he has to his past: the only connection that remains to his good friend Ginge.

Once in awhile the phone rings and I see "Burns Foster" on the call display. My heart skips a beat and I smile. Yet while he talks my eyes well with tears and I can barely speak because it's like for a few minutes my dad is right there beside me. The emotion is almost overwhelming. I too have a connection, a connection through my dad to a man I have scarcely met and barely know. A connection to the lively young Fuzz who came alive for me through my father's stories. A connection to the much older Burns, a wise and gentle man who is so much like my dad. A connection that transcends the miles and the years. 

Burns Foster. The last living connection I have to my dad and his generation. I am glad to know him.
Dad in the middle at the back, Burns far right front.

Thursday, 5 November 2015


In his letters he called her "Girl". There were many letters. Letters from Sarcee Camp, where he trained. Letters from the front. Postcards from Belgium while he waited to come home. Later, letters from their home to her parents' homestead where she spent every summer. And much later, long lonely letters from the Far North where he worked. He signed himself "Boy" or sometimes just "B".

She told me one day she planned to write her life story.

She never did.

It was an epic romance. A quiet beautiful girl from a pioneer family and a lonely charming British orphan. Wars and hardship. Compromise. A woman in search of adventure. A man who wanted nothing more than a home and family. A love that lasted.

He was a banker in Lake Saskatoon. She wanted to be a nurse, but instead became a homesteader with her family in the Peace Country.

One day he came to call on horseback. The horse bucked him off and he lost his gift of chocolates and mandarin oranges. He said that newcomers found them and felt they had come to a promised land where oranges and chocolates grew.

World War One. He signed up immediately, joining the Peace River Contingent of the 66th Battalion. They were married while he was on leave. He gave her a beautiful ruby engagement ring. She lost so much weight after he joined up that he had a keeper ring made for her, a ring with the number 66 on it. A ring I wear to this day.

He went to war. She followed. I don't know how she afforded passage but somehow she made her way across the continent and onto a ship and into Britain. A couple befriended her. The only passenger who didn't suffer from seasickness, she sat at the captain's table for dinner.

England. Once she got lost in the streets of London. Terrified and afraid of the dark, she ran for miles until she found a familiar place. Her leather gloves were drenched with sweat.
Back row, far left.
She worked in a munitions factory and lived with my grandfather's people. One day the factory was shelled and huge chunks of glass fell onto the women below. Her neighbour, a refugee from eastern Europe, was struck in the back of the neck by falling glass, saved only by her enormous braid of hair which was sheared off completely.

She was good at her job and soon was promoted from making shells to inspecting them. One sits on my desk.  One of the millions of women who stayed behind, trying to do their part in times of fear with limited resources and a shortage of labour. The women of my grandmother's generation didn't just "keep the home fires burning." They kept their country working.

He was wounded and returned to England to recuperate. Soon he returned to the front to fight another day. Then the armistice. It took her some time, after the war, to secure return passage. It took him even longer. But eventually they both made it home.

Delia, Alberta
They moved from one prairie town to another. Their first child was born and then the second. She sewed fabulous dresses and doll clothes. She nursed my mom through meningitis. It was the Depression. She learned to make anywhere she lived feel like home. She picked the gold embroidery out of her gorgeous flapper dress stitch by stitch so she could make a new dress for my mother.

My grandmother loved her two children fiercely in her own quiet way. A neighbour miscarried her first child. "How horrible," the ladies said. "Losing your first child!" "Oh," my grandmother said, "Losing your second child would be so much worse. Because then you know what they are like. You would know what you missed."

Every summer she returned to the family homestead with her two girls by train or by car. She was an excellent driver and could maneuver almost any vehicle out of snow or mud. Granddad remained behind, writing his letters to his darling girl. She rarely wrote back.

In Edmonton
They moved to Edmonton, where he was known to juggle plates for dinner guests, much to her alarm. There were countless visitors from back home, especially when the second World War began. Their daughters grew up, went to university, got jobs, married and had kids. My grandparents retired back to the Peace Country just meters away from the family homestead where she could raise horses and chickens and and cats and visit with her sisters.

My father, before he was my father, came for a visit. "I've never liked the name George," she said. "It reminds me of someone walking on gravel."  And "Never mind about the porridge. If you don't like it I'll just feed it to the cats."

Granddad worried about money. In retirement, he relieved for bank managers across the Far North. Inuvik. Aklavik. Fort Smith. More letters home from "Boy." No letters from "Girl." His letters described his loneliness and asked why she did not respond.

On the farm
Toward the end of their lives, my grandfather wanted to move to town. They rented a suite at the seniors lodge. He loved chatting with the people in the lodge. Every chance she got, she drove back to the farm, once getting snowed in for a week. He relented and they moved back home. To her dying day, she was still searching for a piece of land to homestead on.

On the morning of their 60th anniversary, Granddad was grouchy. "I got up this morning and went to thank your grandmother. I sat on the side of the bed and told her how much I loved her and what a wonderful wife she had been for the past 60 years and she just rolled over and went back to sleep!"  My grandmother smiled. "I didn't hear you. I didn't have my hearing aids in."

My grandfather died. My grandmother stood in the kitchen. Her stalwart pose dissolved and she wept. "Whatever will I do now"? she said. Late one winter night, returning from tea with her sisters, she stepped in front of a truck and she was gone.

My grandparents were married for 62 years.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Granddad in the Trenches

Sometimes he woke up screaming, my mother said.

It was hard to believe that of my grandfather. But World War one left its scars.

He told her that once, when they were marching through the muck and the mud, he fell into a hole and was sinking. He grabbed for anything solid so he could pull himself up. When he reached dry land he found himself clutching a handful of human hair.

He brought back a painted coffee pot from Belgium. Postcards of the sites he had seen. The helmet of a German solider. We never asked him how he got it.
Postcard from England 
He wrote letters home to his in-laws and to his bride, who he addressed as "My Darling Girl". The letters were newsy and cheery. He remarked on people from home that he had met. He mentioned some of the quirks of his fellow soldiers. He thanked people for food parcels. He asked how things were at home. His biggest complaint was loneliness. He did not talk about the horror.

On Remembrance Day we made him and my dad polish their medals and join the men from the Legion as they marched to the cenotaph in Beaverlodge. He hated to wear his medals. He did not think of himself as a hero. He did not talk about the war. But he saved every poppy he had ever worn on a banner in the hallway.

Granddad was a British orphan who came to Canada as a child and worked in a bank in Lake Saskatoon where he met my grandmother. He joined up as soon as he could and was stationed in Edmonton.  He married his lovely wife (who he called "Girl" until his dying day) while he was on leave. According to him, when he returned a day late from leave the sergeant asked where he had been. "Getting married sir." "Good for you Martin," was the reply, "The army needs more brave men like you." My grandmother followed him to England where she lived with his brother and sister-in-law and worked in a munitions factory. A shell from that factory sits on my desk.

He fought at Arras and Ypres. He was wounded by shrapnel at Passchendaele. He was awarded a military medal at Amiens. I never knew why.

He carried a tiny Bible. It falls open to the "Song of Solomon." I imagine him reading that psalm of love over and over again in the midst the grime and the blood and the smell of death. Perhaps it was in those trenches he penned the only poem he ever wrote, an ode to my grandmother.
Granddad's Bible

In the Bible are inscribed the words "Hope shall brighten days to come and memory gild the past."

  • Ypres Nov 10/17
  • Passchendaele Nov 1917
  • Amiens Aug 1918

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Between Thanksgiving and Remembrance

I had a busy week or two. Alberta Showcase followed immediately by the BlendED Symposium, work, a trip to the hospital, a trip to the city. Somewhere in there, the federal election, the news my MLA had been appointed Minister of Municipal Affairs, and the Alberta budget.

Alberta Showcase is a ton of fun. Arts presenters from all over Alberta listen to Canadian performing artists, attend workshops and network with other presenting groups, both volunteer and professional. Our team of Stage North volunteers were there in force, listening, comparing notes, schmoozing with musicians and agents and (because after all they are Slave Lakers) downing the odd shooter. Until I got involved with this organization I had no idea that there so much talent across Canada. The quality of musicians we have selected via the Arts Touring Alliance of Alberta is astounding and we have been able to increase attendance at our concerts from 40 to 200.

Immediately following Showcase I presented at the BlendED Symposium, speaking with the very lame title "It takes a person to personalize learning." Those involved in online education know that there are many corporations out there vying for the education dollar under the idea that by using algorithms, they can "personalize" instruction and assessment for students so they can learn.  My premise is that it takes a human being to engage students in their learning.  I've been working online for 16 years. It was cool to see some younger teachers embrace the use of innovative forms of education to reach their students.

A couple of days getting caught up at work, and then I had the occasion  seek some medical treatment at my local hospital which is a well run place filled with professional, businesslike people providing service with a smile to their patients right in the midst of a major clinic move.

Then to the city to do some shopping with my daughter, see a movie and have dinner with my mother in law.

On the way home, the grey skies turned to rain and then sleet and then snow. The dismal season is upon us. With thanksgiving well behind us, the leaves gone from the trees, the colour gone from the grass, and Hallowe'en over for another year, it is bleak.

My dad's log book and medals including DFC
The next non-work day is Remembrance Day, a time to think of those who sacrificed their lives for our country. It never seems right to decorate the house or celebrate during this dreary time. Instead, I always feel this time of year is in a holding pattern, a time to reflect on what it means to be a Canadian. To ponder just what it was my grandfather and father and other young men and women risked their lives for.  Is this Canada the one they were fighting for?

My experiences last week tell me YES!

First, culture. Isn't it incredible that we live in a country and a province where we are free to enjoy the arts? The arts that bring colour and life and meaning to our world? And the leisure time to do so? The Alberta Arts Touring Alliance receives funding from the government and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts provides our concert series with roughly $5000 per year which allows us to make our performances affordable for all. And this funding is passed on to the musicians who in turn make our lives better.

Second, public education. Not long before I submitted my proposal for the BlendED conference, I heard a podcast on This American Life called "Three Miles".  This was a tragic tale of a gifted student who attended public school in a poor neighbourhood. She had a bright future and a scholarship ahead of her. Then she took part in an exchange with a wealthy private school. The injustice deeply affected her and she quit school. As a teacher and a parent I was greatly moved by this expose of the heartbreaking injustices of the U.S. school system. Our Canadian education system provides opportunities to kids from all walks of life, with disabilities and personal issues. I work with kids with unique challenges every day. My dad and men like him fought for equality of opportunity. I am proud to be part of a publicly funded education system where teachers provide innovative solutions to help all students reach their potential regardless of income level or the neighbourhood they live in.

Third, health care. Our health care system in Slave Lake has gone through many trials and a high turn over of doctors. But I think we have turned the corner. And I love that I can enter a clinic or an emergency room right here in my little northern town and receive excellent treatment and it doesn't cost me one nickel. That is something every Canadian should be proud of.

Pensions. We had a nice visit with my mother in law over the weekend. She's in her mid eighties and lives in her own immaculate home where she is pleased as can be to cook up what she calls a traditional "ethnic dinner" of roast beef and yorkshire pudding for her grandkids. And she can do that because she receives an adequate pension to live on thanks to unionized workers and federal pension funds supported by Canadian tax dollars.

The time between Thanksgiving Day and Remembrance Day is a time for for reflection on what it means to be Canadian. I thank you, Canadians who went before. Thank you for fighting for what really matters. Thank you for the progressive and forward-thinking nation you helped create.

This Remembrance Day, I will remember and give thanks.

My grandfather George Martin, centre.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

They also serve

"He missed the point entirely," ranted my mom on the way home from church one Sunday near Remembrance Day. "They weren't just sitting around waiting. They were doing things. Milton himself wasn't just sitting around and waiting. He was writing poetry!"

She was arguing-as only my mother could do- against the thesis proposed by our minister Bert Willis in a sermon based on John Milton's poem "On His Blindness." Milton's poem was written after he became blind. A deeply religious man, Milton wondered what God expected him to do once he was blind. How could he use his talent when he couldn't see?  The Reverend Willis pondered about what we could do when we were faced with forces that made us unable to act. As I recall, he talked about faith and service and the fact that there are many ways to serve God. The Reverend Willis talked about people who stayed behind during the wars and how their particular form of service was to wait. At least that's how I remember it.

Mom and Dad making cotton candy. With their own
machine they bought to fundraise with.
My mother was never one to sit and wait. Or even to sit. She was at times frenetically busy, a compulsive volunteer who was constantly thinking of new projects.  I can't remember her sitting through a TV show without also knitting, sewing, marking papers or talking about the show or something else all together. I don't remember her preparing a meal without stopping to read a magazine article. She was a multi-tasker before  the word was even invented.

So for the minister to suggest that people could somehow "serve" by doing nothing? Ridiculous.

Our culture is based on being busy. Ask people how they are doing, and the reply is rarely about how they feel but how they live. "Busy," they say, "Too busy. Run off my feet."  It's a source of pride. I know this because I say it myself. I hear it from my friends and neighbours and my own children. My daughter tells me she can't sit through a TV show. She needs to be doing something.  And I wonder how good that is for all of us.

Would it help us, to be less busy? Could we learn to stand and wait? I'd love to try. If I could just find the time.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"I fondly ask. 
But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Wednesday, 21 October 2015


You know how it is.  Someone you haven't thought about in years pops into your head. You wonder what ever happened to her. Or him.
Confirmation Day

Awhile ago I got to thinking about my old friend G. She and I were pretty close back our school days. Her dad worked for Loveseth's. Her mom was a war bride. She had an older brother and sister and an adorable little sister who spoke with an English accent. We were from good Anglican families and sang in the church choir and got confirmed at the same time.  After school before confirmation class we used to go to the Tastee Freez for a pop. One summer we decided we should make a few bucks and ran a summer camp. Our charges included our own two sisters, the Chmelyk twins and their little sister. I think we made enough money to buy a burger. G and I drifted apart in junior high. She moved to White Rock and I never heard from her again.

A few days ago I somehow got in touch with her over Facebook. She replied with "Is this really you? From DC? Looking forward to catching up with, really catching up...and where to start?"

Where indeed? How to tell your life story going back over 40 years? What have I done that would interest anyone? What is "my story?" What to put in? What to leave out? I can tell the basic facts in a couple of paragraphs, but is that all there is? So many things happen in a life.  What would matter to her? What matters to me? The highlights matter as much as those low times I'd rather not share with anyone. The wonderful and the horrible experiences that make me who I am.

A couple of years ago I wrote my mom's story for her, illustrated with photos from her life. As a dementia sufferer, she sometimes forgot who she was. My brother told me that almost every day, she poured over that book, sometimes remembering, sometimes thinking she was reading about someone else. Today I wonder-what did she want me to know that I never found out? What would she rather that I never knew?

When my grandmother died, I inherited her wooden trunk full of letters. Every now and then I make a stab at those letters. Hundreds of letters. Newsy letters from my mom to my grandmother when I was born. Homesick letters from my aunt when she went to Chicago with her husband so he could take a course. The letter that told her that my great grandmother had died. Mostly, letters from my grandfather. Letters worrying about money. Personal letters asking why she never wrote back. Letters no one else was meant to read. All part of her story, part of a new narrative no one else in my family knows.

We all have our stories. As a teacher, I think about the stories my students have to tell. Once in awhile, I'm the one they choose to tell it to. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Tell Me 'Bout the Good Ole Days

The good ole days! 

Back when times were simpler.

Back when the lines between right and wrong seemed so clear.

Back when people were better.

Back when Canada was a Christian nation and all political and economic decisions were made by men.

Back when Canada was "discovered" by those who ignored that aboriginal people were already here and subsequently denied them a voice in government until 1960.

Our Canada, where women could not vote until 1919.

Our Canada, whose own Supreme Court ruled that women were not, in fact, persons, until 1929 when the British Privy Council said they were.

Our Canada, where Chinese immigrants entering the nation to build the railroad paid millions in "head tax." 

Our Canada, where Japanese immigrants were stripped of their property and sent to live in internment camps.

Well, those good ole days are gone. Generations of Canadians of many backgrounds have worked tirelessly to create a tolerant nation based on individual rights and freedoms. Our country was ranked #1 on the UN Human Development Index from 1993-2000. Unfortunately though, our current government seems to want us to slide backwards into the good ole days when an elite group made decisions for the masses and individual rights and freedoms were limited.

In a recent widely shared Facebook post, originally published as a letter to the editor in the Ottawa Sun, Kanata's Bill MacCallum derided Canadians for wanting change. According to MacCallum Canada is perfect just the way it is.

Sorry, I don't think so. Change is needed.

Uphold Charter Rights

  • Protect my freedom of speech, my privacy and my mobility rights. Repeal Bill C-51. We already have many protections in place to prevent terrorism. Why should my civil liberties be curtailed? 
  • Uphold religious freedoms. Canada is a multicultural nation. Stop promoting the idea of "the other". A Muslim woman has a right to wear a niqab. I don't understand it but if she has made the choice of her own free will, leave it be. And Zero Tolerance for "Barbaric" Cultural Practices? Come on. Why call polygamy, under age and forced marriage and honour killings "cultural practices"? Those acts are already against the law. Now the whole world is calling us xenophobic!
  • Uphold freedom of speech for science. Funding for scientific research has been cut by millions under the Harper government, and federal scientists have been repeatedly silenced when they try to speak about what they have learned if it goes against the message of the ruling party. We need to hear from these dedicated intelligent people who were hired to find things out. And the public deserves to know what they have learned, even if they are ugly truths. Especially if they are ugly truths.

  • Restore democratic rights. My daughter is a researcher in the UK. Under the current law, this is the last election in which she will be allowed to cast a Canadian vote, despite the fact she has not renounced citizenship, pays Canadian taxes, donates to Canadian charities and loves her country. Is she somehow no longer a citizen?

Aboriginal Issues

Harper says the concerns with murdered and missing aboriginal women has been studied to death and all the cases have been solved. But he is missing the point entirely. Why are these women being killed? What conditions lead them to live such high risk lifestyles? 

Youth suicide in aboriginal communities has skyrocketed, with a suicide rate that is 5-6 times higher than the national average. Incarceration rates are 40% higher. While we hear about terrible racism in the U.S., the chart from Maclean's shows aboriginal people in Canada fare worse than African Americans in every way. We have our racial issues here in Canada.

What is our government doing to deal with the fact that by virtually every single indicator, Aboriginal people fare worse than any other identifiable group?

Give us back our place on the world stage

Canada, once renowned on the world stage for its tolerance and peacekeeping, has lost it's way. We currently are ranked at # 8 on the UN Human Development Index. Shameful.

Conservatives reject change by definition. They hearken back to the traditions of the past. We need a sense of our past as individuals and as a nation, otherwise how do we learn and grow? I'm a proud Canadian. I love my country. I am proud of many of the actions of my ancestors and those who worked to build our nation. I also believe mistakes were made and we need to move forward. 

The good ole days might have been simpler. Maybe right and wrong were easier to determine when it was just white men acting in self interest. Now there are so many factors to consider. Science, for example. And the perspectives of the many, with all their different beliefs and values and genders and colours and income levels and job descriptions. 

We need to move forward with respect for the dignity of all human beings towards greater equality and justice. 

We need change.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Dear "Albertans Against the NDP"

OK. You don't like the NDP. I get it. You don't like its platform, policies or ideology? Fine. You are free to hold your own opinions, campaign for another party, or run for office, Vote for another party at the next election. That is your right. Diversity of opinion and the freedom to vote are essential aspects of every democratic country.  But you can't expect a "recall" or a "vote of non-confidence" or demand that another election be called immediately. That is not how our democracy works.

Some of you are bitter that the party you supported for decades lost. Understandable. After 44 years in power, it must be tough to feel your views are not represented in the legislature. You'll get another shot at it in a few years,

But could I just give you a few tips-if you really want to advance your cause? Suggesting you tear down every NDP lawn sign you see and creating a big bonfire in the ditch violates section 325 of Canada's Election Act. Saying the Premier's office should be burned down or that Tom Mulcair should be hung from a tree is also illegal.

It might be a thought to tone down the personal insults as well. Among the over 600,000 "retarded idiots" who voted NDP on May 5 you may well find your neighbour, your local pastor, your kids' teachers, the nurse who tended to you during an emergency, the fire fighter that just saved your house from burning, and the doctor who diagnosed your latest illness.  Anyway maybe don't go around saying, "Any of you guys want to admit you voted NDP should give me your address so I can come over and slap your face." That kind of crude bullying doesn't help convince any thinking person that they should support you.

You don't like the Premier? Ok. But your misogynist comments, including calling her a witch, a f--king bitch, "an ugly whore", a "twat", a "no-good stupid piece of sh--", the "fricken devil I seen in my nightmares", a "stupid blonde thing" and a "snatch" doesn't demonstrate that you understand the issues that face our province.  It just shows that you hate women. And I'm not sure if anyone cares what your "buddy" who knew her in high school thinks, especially his view that she was a "high maintenance c--nt". 

And calling for her assassination? Enough already.

Every quotation in this blog was taken directly from the "Albertans Against the NDP" Facebook page, a page describes itself as not being affiliated with any political party. It  states "Anyone antagonizing or trolling will be banned." Yet apparently hate speech and threats of violence against individuals are ok.

It seems that the bulk of the people who comment on the page blame the NDP for the collapse of the energy sector. They frequently comment that anyone who votes NDP is a "leech", a "parasite", or a "lazyass welfare bum" who should "get off your asses and work for a living."

I don't expect people to understand the global economy or even know the basics about how the political system in their own province works. But can these people unite the right by playing on fear and ignorance, encouraging the hatred of women, and allowing vile name-calling and threats of violence?

On second thought, keep it up, "Albertans Against the NDP." Keep dividing the right. Because I hope the intelligent and compassionate supporters of a more right wing ideology, many of whom are my friends, will find another way.

There is too much hate in this world already.

Note: After continuing threats against the premier, on October 20 2015 the RCMP announced it was investigating continuing threats to Premier Notley published on the "Albertans Against the NDP" Facebook page. Later that day, the site was taken down. A new version was released the next day.

Friday, 11 September 2015

magical journey

"Come outside. You have to see this!" says my husband. I'm exhausted by the grueling uphill walk to Namche Bazaar in the Himalayas of Nepal. We had arrived in darkening skies, surrounded by dense fog in drizzling rain. We checked in at the first guesthouse we found where were to sleep on narrow benches under the windows in the dining room at the lodge, up a long flight of wooden stairs.

"Seriously? I'm too tired to walk all the way down the stairs!"

"It's worth it," he says.

So down I go, my legs ready to give out at every step. The fog has lifted. The village is surrounded by high peaks topped with glowing snow. The air is crisp and clean with a touch of woodsmoke. The sky is filled with enormous stars that seem close enough to touch. From the monastery far away comes the haunting moan of the dungchen, the Tibetan long trumpet. We stand in the stillness and take it in.


Years later.
We arrive in the evening at  "Backwater Farmhouse," an oddly named string of cottages in a small village along a Kerala canal near the Malabar Coast. We feast on southern Indian specialties and then are shown to our one room cottage on a narrow point of land.

At sunrise, chanting wakes me. I walk out onto the small deck. In front of me is a completely still body of water,reflecting the surrounding palm trees. The sky is gently lightening into pinks and purples. There is a soft swoosh nearby and a giant cantilevered fishing net rises out of the water, its operator standing in the water below. A cormorant spreads its wings. The air is filled with singing from a nearby Syrian Christian church, invisible in the jungle. This time it's me who tells my husband, "You have to see this."

I have arrived and departed at hundreds of places over the years. Many times I have arrived in the dark and woken up to unexpected wonders. Woken up to the magic that is part of our lives. Magic that catches me unawares.

 My life. Full of magical surprises I did not expect. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Behind the Wall

We just came back from a trip to Africa where we visited a large mining operation. In this operation, ore is mined miles away and the slurry is pumped through a pipeline to the coast where it is processed and shipped to other nations.

The mining operation is owned by a conglomerate of companies based in wealthier nations. They pay the nation a 1% tax on the land where the mine is based and 1% in royalties. They also employ many local people who might otherwise be unemployed.

The mining operation has a residential programme for expat families. These families live in a pristine world behind a concrete wall protected by armed guards, razor wire and electric fencing. Behind the wall, streets are paved and immaculate. Tropical gardens flourish. Lawns are mowed. Pet dogs and cats are well loved. There are beautiful swimming pools, a well equipped gym, an international school, a medical clinic and tennis courts.

Inside the neat as a pin bungalows of the residential village you will find 54 inch flat screen TVs, microwaves, new large fridges, washers and dryers and silent and efficient air conditioning units, modern furniture and all the creature comforts. By Canadian standards, normal, pleasant homes. By the standards of this nation, unimaginable paradise. Residents have gardeners and drivers and housekeepers who come in once or twice a week-or every day should they so choose.  All of it behind steel roll shutters that are locked every night and whenever they leave the building.

It's a lovely compound. The walls keep the outside world at bay.

Just steps outside the gate is a gorgeous deserted wild beach that stretches for miles. We are told it is unsafe for foreigners to walk on without being mugged. After walking a few km down this beach to a near deserted beach bar at a floundering local "resort" we watch the blue green waves crash on the beach. Apart from a couple of fishermen and three or four kids, there is no one.

Next to the camp is the massive modern plant, fully illuminated by night. Reportedly, effluent from the plant flows into the nearby rivers and the ocean. We are told the foreign workers can trust no one. Theft is constant and a cultural norm. The prevailing attitude is that if something is there you want, you should take it. God left it for you. Considering the pittance the mining corporation pays the nation in royalties, maybe the multinationals feel the same way.

Past the plant is the town, more prosperous than any other town we have seen in this country, but still impoverished with bicycle rickshaws and flimsy grass shacks which are supposedly cyclone resistant. Decades of colonial rule followed by a xenophobic communist regime, years of political instability and a recent coup have led to decreased foreign investment and the elimination of most international aid. It is by far the poorest country I have ever seen.

The expats go to foreign owned guarded grocery stores where they buy imported goods. They eat at select restaurants where delicious cuisine cooked by foreign trained chefs. They go to the artisan market with their drivers who watch out for them. They visit the chocolate shop and the fish market and the export quality spice store.

Produce at the market
This, in a nation where 76% of people live on an average daily wage of $1.25 a day. Despite the abundance of fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, malnutrition is prevalent. 50% of kids under five receive inadequate nutrition which impacts physical and mental development.

The contrast between the world behind the wall and the world outside the wall is startling.  Inside the compound, the world is controlled and organized and clean. Outside, chaos. The company has brought money to this town  and the country where there is little foreign investment. There are natural resources in abundance in this nation but the multinationals fear unrest.

I am here as a tourist. As a tourist in the developing world you can stay in nice hotels and eat at decent restaurants and hire taxis for next to nothing. And you know you can do so because you live in a wealthy developed nation where you have a good job. You hope some of your money trickles down to the people and that is how you justify the disparity to yourself- if you feel you need to justify such a thing. Mostly you know there is no justice in this global economy. You know you are not rich because you work harder than an African miner. You are not rich because you are smarter than a third world maid. You are not rich because you deserve to be.

I don't much like this country. There are elements of beauty. There are kind and decent people. But it bothered me to see such disparity. I don't  know if I could live here as the expats do, in a world so separated from the people. The foreigners live so well, yet right beside them are hardworking people who live with nothing. And as much as the expats are safe, they are also imprisoned. The walls that keep the world away isolate them from everyone except each other.

Here in North America we live in our own little paradise, behind our own walls, separated from the majority of the world's people who live on next to nothing while we live in relative luxury. How often do we think of the grass shacks where the people who grow our rice and coffee and cocoa live? Do we ever think that it is likely a child who hauls our produce to market on his back? It's just easier for us to ignore the poverty that fuels our luxury because we don't see it every day.