Saturday, 13 June 2015

At My Mother's Table

My mother's table has been sitting in my garage since last July. We moved it here, along with a U-Haul full of stuff, after she went into a nursing home. I brought it home for my middle daughter who knew she would need a table when she got her first real job and her first real apartment. 

My husband and I already have a lovely oak table, rebuilt by my father in law for us shortly after we married. He found it at an antique store, had a new skirt milled for it, and refinished it. I refinished it again not so long ago. It's a solid table, and it was built with love. But it is also small. So when Elizabeth got her apartment, we decided to give her the smaller table and use the larger one ourselves. 

Family Christmas
My mother's table has a heavy oak pedestal and a solid round skirt and 4 original leaves. Pulled out to its full length, it seats 14 comfortably as it did many times in my parent's house when our whole family was together. 

Cookie decorating
My parents bought the table from an estate sale when I was a kid. I have no idea where it came from. I refinished the top of it a lovely golden brown when I was 17. It hasn't been refinished since. And after we set it up in our living room, taking three of us to hoist it upright, I could see it needed refinishing again. One side was particularly worn and I realized that was the side where my mom sat-alone- for the past few years since my dad's death.  The finish was worn down to nothing by the caregiver's vigorous scrubbing.

I wondered if I should refinish it the same golden colour or a darker brown to match the sideboard and china cabinet?  Elizabeth said she preferred the brown. The stain at the hardware store did not have samples, so the kid in the paint department kindly tested at least 7 kinds of stain for me. None were golden brown. I finally settled on a darker brown called "Colonial American."  

Dad rolling out pie crust.
I love refinishing furniture. I don't do it too often and I'm too impatient to do a thorough job, but it's rewarding to see a solid piece of of craftsmanship regain it's original appearance. And as I scour and scrape and sand the table, I think about its past. A myriad of activities have taken place at my mother's table.  It's been the setting of breakfasts and coffee klatches and family dinners and staff parties. Many pie crusts have been rolled out by my dad on it's surface. Dozens of cookies have been decorated. Hundreds of figure skating costumes cut out.  I have stood on this table to have a hem measured. So many hands of canasta played until deep into the night. I've set it countless times, using the everyday china and cutlery- and the fancy china and silver. I discovered a small circular indentation- and remembered the little cylinder of metal used in making self-covered buttons. It must have slipped and left this mark. I left it alone. The table needs its battle scars.

Finally, the top of the table is smooth and bare. The sides and base will have to wait for another day. I spread on the dark brown stain and wait, then buff it off with a cloth. Then repeat. The patches scrubbed bare by Lilya over the years will not accept the stain, no matter what I do. After the second coat, I wait again. Lo and behold -the table is the exact same golden brown as it has always been. 

Canasta night
My mom and dad are both gone now. I don't know when my entire family will sit at my mother's table again. When they do, it will be ready.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Fear of Fifteen

As the "Fight for $15" continues, I hear a lot of scary stories from people in my part of the world. They are afraid of so many things. Mostly, I think, they are afraid of change. After all, this is a province that elected the same government for nearly 44 years, and before that, one party was in power for 36 years.

I hear anecdotes from people who base their opinions on stories about this and that. For instance, an article mentioning three restaurants that shut down in Seattle was proof that minimum wage increases led to job loss, despite the fact that the restaurant owners in question had named other reasons for their demise, and one specifically stated it was nothing to do with wage increases. I guess a personal story is easier to relate to.  It has power. It is easy to understand. It doesn't require looking at facts or statistics. Because, to quote former premier Jim Prentice, "Math is difficult." There are a few books out there on this topic, for instance Dan Gardner's Risk:The Science and Politics of Fear

But anecdotes are not evidence. 

Source: Doucouliagos and Stanley (2009)
I prefer to look at statistics and research when trying to decide what to believe, especially when it comes to the potential effects of government policy. Dozens of studies going back decades have found that an increase in the minimum wage does not lead to job loss. A recent study looked at employment in the restaurant sector in the U.S. over a 16 year period, comparing employment in 1381 counties. The study found no employment effects of minimum wage increases. In Britain, 140 studies have shown the same thing.  Meta-studies (“studies of studies” that pool the results of a large number of research papers)  found that that minimum wage increases had little to no effect on employment and one worldwide study even found that minimum wage increases led to increased employment.

B.C. froze its minimum wage for 9 years. When it raised it in May 2011, the Fraser Institute claimed that would lead to over 52,000 job losses- a 16 per cent decline in employment. Completely wrong. Instead there was a 1.6% decrease in employment for people aged 15-24. At the same time, 1.1% of that age group went back to school, which they should have done anyway.

Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo recently stated that a low minimum wage actually results in tax-payers subsidizing the fast food industry. Because fast food workers cannot live on their income, they need food stamps or turn to social services for income assistance. Because they are poor, they are far more likely to be sick and use Medicaid or in Canada, public healthcare services.

There is a lot of misinformation about who minimum wages earners are. The stereotype is that they are teenagers who don't really need the money. In reality, most minimum wage earners are are full time ethnic minority women who live on a wage that puts them below the poverty level.

In the minds of some, the working poor are lazy good-for-nothings. They are poor because they deserve to be. They don't understand what work means. Some of these people will tell you that minimum wage jobs were never meant to be full time permanent jobs. They were meant to be entry level jobs that would encourage people to work harder and get better jobs. Yet minimum wage employees do important work. Society relies on them to serve us coffee and ring up our groceries and take care of our kids and our aging parents, to say nothing of the working poor outside of Canada who grow and package our food and manufacture most of the goods we own. These people are far from lazy. 

In real terms, the minimum wage in Canada has only increased by one cent since 1975 while the wages of the people at the top steadily escalate. Income inequality is increasing dramatically, especially in Alberta. Especially for women. In Alberta, the top 10% of tax-filers in 2012 made 50.4 of all the income earned in the province. In a province where the CEO of an agricultural company makes over $23 million a year and the president of the U of A makes more than 1.1 million in compensation (all the while saying "the university can't withstand more cuts"), in a country where a hockey player makes over $16 million, I have to wonder why anyone resents their Timmy's clerk making over $19,000 a year.

Our minimum wage in Alberta is $10.20/hr (liquor servers $9.20)- the richest province in the country, with one of the lowest minimum wage levels. While only 2% of wage earners make minimum wage, nearly 300,000 Albertans make less than $15 an hour.  That is not a living wage. If raising the minimum wage doesn't lead to unemployment, it does lead to one thing. It leads to a better life for the poor.

And a better life for the poor is good for everyone.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

My Reconciliation Includes

Truth and Reconciliation

I say it's complicated.
Others say it's not.
It's black and white
It's classic good and evil.

My history and your history is anything but black and white.

And while aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians try to reconcile their differences so too do I try to reconcile historical truths with the truths I know.

Letter about Wabasca Residential School, 1935.
Residential schools. Terrible things happened there. Thousands died. Thousands more ripped from the arms of their loving parents. Children who were denied love. Children who grew up not knowing what a family looked like. Children who grew up ashamed of their language and their culture. Children and their children who became adults who suffer the painful inter-generational effects to this day.

The "Sixties Scoop." Thousands of aboriginal children taken from their families in Canada in the 1960s, many with the mistaken idea that these kids did not have a family that would love and care for them. A whole generation of kids, victims of transracial adoption. A generation denied its heritage. Kids who as adults now don't know where they belong. People who now suffer identity crises and mental health issues after growing up outside of their own culture.

How do I reconcile what I know with those truths?

Some of Grandad's young friends in the Far North
Because I know people who worked in residential schools who were not evil people. They were good people. People who were trying to help. People who did not beat or abuse their young charges. People who tried to teach them the skills to succeed in Canadian society. People like Heather who taught in a residential school in Wabasca in the 1960s. As kind a woman as you will ever meet. People like my grandfather, an immigrant from England, who volunteered in the 1950s in Inuvik while he worked for the Bank of Commerce. In his spare time, he taught gymnastics to young Inuit boys. A gentle funny man who enjoyed working with kids.

My brothers, sister and me.
My brother and sister were adopted by my parents in the 1960s. My parents married late in life and did not expect to have any kids after I was born. They applied to adopt. They were asked if they would be interested in an aboriginal child. They said of course. They would take any child who needed a home. My brother came from Penticton Indian Band and my sister from the Tsawout First Nation on Vancouver Island. Although they grew up knowing they were aboriginal and adopted, they also grew up in a white house in a white neighbourhood with the accompanying values and culture. And they grew up with love.

I have a letter my mom wrote to my sister. My sister was speaking on cross cultural adoptions at a conference. My mom related a story about my brother.

When he was about four he said, "Mom, I'm not an Indian, am I? I don't want to be." We had never kept this a secret but a ten year old had taunted him I guess. This was in the sixties and he hadn't seen many aboriginal people except in Cowboy and Indian movies, so I said "Are you thinking of the movies where the Indians fight the Cowboys? Where they are barefoot, ride horses and carry bows and arrows?  He said "yes."  I explained that the pictures were of olden days and that all people are different today...

Just once, he said, why can't the Indians win?

Looking back, we cannot imagine our lives without our four children...They are all well educated and gainfully employed and now we have grandchildren. Most important, all of them have learned that people are people and cannot be judged on race or other differences but only on the values they hold.

When my brother and sister each turned 18, they met their birth mothers and chose to live near them for some time. My mother never expressed any concern with their choice. Their birth mothers attended their weddings. My sister now lives on the Tsawout Reserve, three doors away from her birth mother. She herself has an adopted aboriginal son and is an adoptions worker. I can't say whether adoption ruined my siblings lives. You would have to ask them. But I think I know what they would say.

My husband and I are both teachers. We worked in the NWT for two years where we taught aboriginal kids. Wonderful, creative kids. Many of them lived in atrocious conditions- some of them did not get enough to eat. Others lived with alcoholic relatives who went on month-long binges, leaving young kids to fend for themselves. Others were sexually abused by family members. Five young people committed suicide in a five month span in a town of 450 people. We did our best with these kids. We fed them. We visited their homes. We talked to their parents and uncles and aunties and grandparents. We communicated with liaison workers to find better living conditions. Did we try to assimilate these children into mainstream Canadian culture? Were we part of a tradition of cultural genocide? Perhaps. But I also know it is the only place I have ever worked where I truly believe I made a difference. It mattered that I was there.

Today, I am a distance education course writer. My course materials include lessons about residential schools and aboriginal issues. I hope one day to assist with building courses in Aboriginal Studies for all Albertan students, including my First Nations students who tell me "I don't understand what land claims are" and "Can you explain treaty rights again?" And while I do that, I ask myself who am I to teach kids what it means to be aboriginal? Maybe right now, I am the only one.

History is not black and white. It is a place of shadows. It is gray. It is not simple. I know there were atrocities committed. Perhaps my protestant guilt has led me to where I am today in my relationship with aboriginal people. Perhaps it is how I was raised or who my parents and siblings and students are. Or maybe just simply my humanity. Whatever it is, my reconciliation includes looking at my own history and knowing that somewhere between our good intentions and their evil effects is truth. And I have made my peace with that.