Wednesday, 24 May 2017

El Camino: Why Walk the Portuguese Way

I love to travel. But I rarely tell anyone to go to the places I have been.

For the Portuguese Way of the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I will make an exception. 

You should go.

If you have a passport and you can scrape together the airfare and have 15 days of vacation and you can walk 10 km a day, you should go.

You should go for the solitude and the companionship. You should go for the rest and for the exercise. You should go for the simple pleasure of going to bed each night physically exhausted. You should go to be alone with your thoughts and go to share them with others. You should go for the surprises that lie around each corner. The scenery that will stop you in your tracks over and over again every day. The walled medieval cities and the sleepy villages and the arched bridges and the seaside paths and the wide valleys and the forested mountains and the neighbours chatting by their gates. The ancient stone walls covered in moss and the grapevines unfurling in the vineyards and and the burbling streams and the early morning dew on the newly planted fields and the sun on the lemon trees and the spring flowers and the hills of yellow broom and the overgrown ruins of abandoned homes. The cobblestones leading to charming boutique hotels and rustic albergues. The most magnificent of cathedrals and the tiniest of roadside shrines. Go to see all these things you can only see when you walk.

Go for the green wine and the tiny beers and the espresso and the pastries and the octopus and the trout and the substantial free snacks. Go for the tapas and the three course pilgrim's menu. 

Go to renew your soul and go to remind yourself of what matters. 

Go because you want to walk your own way and go because there are many who will help you find the path. 

Go to feel solidarity with the generations who walked before you and those who will follow in your footsteps. 

Go to prove to yourself you can.

Just go.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sagrada Familia

The light stops you in your tracks. Warm and joyous, sunshine through the red and yellow stained glass floods the immense space in the afternoon light. If you were there in the morning, the light from the opposite windows would stain the air cool blue and green.

But you are there in the afternoon. The light envelopes you. Your eyes are drawn upwards by the massive tree like pillars. As if you are in a magical forest with alabaster columns supporting a magnificent canopy of stone high above your head. So high, you cannot believe the ceiling stands with so little visible support in this vast space.

A small girl stands in the transept holding an Ipad. "It's St. Jordie's Day, Nana! All the girls give their boyfriends roses and their girlfriends give them books! There are roses everywhere!" She pivots excitedly to show her grandmother the church. I catch a glimpse of Nana's smile and I am struck by inexplicable emotion. I turn away from their moment- so intimate and so public.

La Sagrada Familia. The Holy Family. The church astounds you inside and out. It is Gothic and at the same time modern. The artistry and craftsmanship and the mathematical genius of its construction. From the ornate Nativity facade, covered in detailed and delicate carvings to the austere, almost fascist Passion facade that depicts the sacrifice of Christ with a spare brutality.

Decades ago I visited Glastonbury Abbey with my family. It took centuries to build. Once glorious, it now lies in ruins. "Imagine," said my mom. "Imagine working on something your entire life and knowing you would never see what it looked like when it was finished. That's faith."

Gaudi spent the better part of his life working on La Sagrada Familia. He was 73 when he died in a streetcar accident, the church just one quarter finished. Although he made detailed plans for his church, he knew he would never seen the final product which has an estimated completion date of 2026. 

What would Gaudi think today? Could he have known that the holy temple of his imagining would become a tourist attraction rather than a place of worship, visited by millions of people of all religions? Shared by a child with her grandmother in another land via technology? Or did he simply trust that the end result of his labours would be worth his sacrifice?  

Who among us can ever know what the end result of our work will be? Whether you are an architect, a teacher or a parent, it's impossible to know if your life's work will end up as an awe-inspiring basilica or a pile of rubble. Yet you get up every day and put one foot in front of the other and keep going. 

That's faith. 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


Those who walk the Camino know the value of the waymark. All along the way, the route is marked with the symbol of the scallop shell, yellow on blue, the rays of the shell pointing you in the direction you should go. Supplementing the scallop shell are actual shells, painted yellow, attached to trees and fence posts. Some adorned with just a simple name. In addition to the shells are yellow arrows, some neat and formal, painted onto walls and lamp posts and signposts. Or wooden arrows attached to stakes or nailed to trees and walls. Others spray-painted low on walls, on curbstones, on sidewalks and the very road itself. Painted by local residents, volunteers and city employees, the signs keep you on a path that is centuries old, leading you past churches and chapels and drinking fountains, to cafes and albergues and hotels. Installed with love to guide pilgrims on their way and keep them safe.

The walker soon learns to search out these marks, always looking ahead towards the next directional sign on highways and on country lanes, in cities and towns. Sometimes the signs disappear, especially in busy cities where there are distractions or businesses competing for the custom of the pilgrim. Rarely but annoyingly, businesses who have lost foot traffic when the route has been changed vigilantly remove new waymarks, crossing them out with black paint and redirecting the stream of traffic back past their bars and cafes. In a world full of conflicting roads, without the waymarks, peregrinos would soon be lost and confused. They would never find their way to their destination.

From one end of the Camino to the other, signs point the way. And when signs fail, the peregrino is encouraged by people who live along  the path, pointing the way, calling words of encouragement from the path, from farm fields, from the balconies of their homes. Although you do not share a common language, the calls "Santiago! Courage!" and " Buen Camino!" cheeer you as you walk, reminding you that you are never alone.

In the end, you arrive at your destination. Tired, sore, worn out from days of walking, you come to Santiago de Compostela under your own steam, but not all on your own. The waymarks left by hundreds of others have led you here. The path trod by generations of pilgrims has led you here.

And then you are done.

There are no more arrows. No marks to watch for. No signs to tell you which way to go. No one lays out a path or calls out words of encouragement.  The road you take is your own.

Perhaps the strength you gained from the road will guide you. Perhaps knowing that you never walk alone will give you comfort. Perhaps remembering that others have gone before will help you forge your way.

Perhaps the path you walk will serve as a guide for those yet to come.

Buen Camino, amigos. Walk well!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Early morning, Albergue

It's pitch dark when the rustling begins. Sleeping bags shoved into stuff sacks. Legs into pants, feet into socks,  gear into backpacks. The morning ablutions. Headlamps and cellphone flashlights dart into the darkest corners, checking nothing has been left behind. Evening pleasantries forgotten, not a word spoken.

You're one of the first out the door, closing it softly behind you. You forego the sleepy cafe across the street, taking one last glance at the village you are leaving, with its shuttered shopfronts and rainy pavements and grey silent church. Then it's uphill on an asphalt road past country houses still asleep, onto a woodland path beneath dripping pines, the rain gentle on your poncho.

Before long the older Dutch couple catch up to you, the petite wife in her high tech gear motoring ahead as she always does. The husband slows briefly to chat, introducing you to a pilgrim's song, its rhythm echoing the pace of the walk. Then he too is off, joining the wife, the two of them singing into the rain.

You enter a town. Everything closed. So quiet, dogs don't even bark. The sun comes out and for a moment you see your shadow. How much do you resemble the other pilgrims who have walked this same path? You, with your broad brimmed hat, your cloak-like poncho and your walking stick. You and thousands of pilgrims have walked this road for centuries, rising early with strangers, walking through the days. Knowing your destination but perhaps not knowing the reason you walk until days or even years after your journey has ended.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Quinta das Cancelas to Ponte de Lima

You walk past vineyards, tiny grapes just beginning to form. There are thousands of vineyards here in northern Portugal that produce "vinho verde". The "green wine", bottled while still fermenting, frothy, fruity, best consumed young.

Down farm lanes and cobbled paths you walk, low stone walls centuries old, mossy green, sprouting tiny pink and white asters. You walk past fields of purple wildflowers, the hills above yellow with Portuguese broom in blossom.

You walk by scenes that have played out for generations if not centuries by these same families. A wife watches her husband plow a field. Laundry is hung to dry. A man repairs a scarecrow. A mother pulls a child in a cart. Hay is stooked by hand.

Farm fields and vineyards give way to a forest path. A brook babbles below. A hillside studded with Cala lillies. Brilliant pink foxglove interrupt the green and white. Birdsong loud overhead.

The forest gives way to farmland, gives way to ancient hamlets, stone wall beside stone wall. Ancient stone churches and immaculate farmhouses and casas in ruins blend one to the next until you reach a cobblestone path. Grape arbours over top, their shadows intense under the Portuguese sun. The path becomes a riverside walkway alongside the River Lima. The magnificent arched stone bridge, Ponte de Lima, appears ahead of you. The city, beautifully restored. The river filled with rowers. Swallows. Music.

You have arrived.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Senda Litoral

To your left stretches the Atlantic, blue green and aquamarine, the colours you only thought you'd see in the Mediterranean. A sandy beach, soft sand broken up by rocky outcroppings, stretches as far down the coast as you can see. On the horizon, far, far down the beach, resort towers stretch upwards. Your destination. Kilometres away. Never seeming to get nearer.

To your right, wildflowers splash across the dunes. Flowers we in Canada cultivate in our gardens and hope they live. Here, they bloom wild. Gerbera daisies, portulaca, California poppies, oleander, calla lilies. Things you cannot name. White, yellow, brilliant pink against the deep green foliage. In the tidy yards, flowers we only see in floral arrangements. Bird of Paradise, orchids, amaryllis, proteus. Oranges fall from the trees to rot on the ground. Lemons bigger than you have ever seen.

Ahead the boardwalk stretches for more than 20 kilometres through sand dunes and past glass fronted cafes and modern apartments and ancient fishing villages, houses painted brilliant colours, where ship-builders build the "best sardine boats in the world."

Senda  Litoral.

The seashore path.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Things I Ate in Barcelona

Grilled watermelon and goat cheese. 4.5 stars
Caramelized pear torte, vegan. 3 stars
Mueller Priorat Crianza 100 stars
Bocadilla with Iberian ham and Brie 3.5 stars
Broiled Octopus 3.5 stars
Fried Camembert with Berries 4 stars
Paella 2 stars
Flammetart 4 stars
Tiny beers 4 stars

Monday, 10 April 2017

Just what I always wanted

Every family has its stories. Some of them are told over and over again.

My mom was fond of repeating stories, even before the dementia set in.  One involved the first birthday party I ever attended, the fourth birthday of my next door neighbour Ricky Kent.

Ricky Kent in the cardigan, me, far left
The story went that Ricky ripped open a gift and loudly proclaimed, "Pyjamas! Lousy pyjamas!"  This led to my mom giving me a lesson about proper etiquette when receiving a gift.  "You never want to hurt the feelings of someone who has given you a gift.  No matter what it is, you smile and say thank you as if it's the one thing you always wanted."

Continuing on with this tale, my mom related what happened at my own fourth birthday party just a few weeks later. 

When it was time to open the gifts, no matter what the present, I smiled a huge phony smile and exclaimed,"Thank you! It's just what I always wanted!"  My mom told this story over and over, almost every time I opened a present. And over the years, that was a lot of presents. Hundreds of gifts-some "exactly what I always wanted." Some surprises, like the binoculars she gave me for my birthday when I told her my dorm room had an excellent view of the playing field but it was too far away to see the boys. Or the flying lessons she paid for when I turned 21. 

Image result for ribbon candyIn our family, we have some traditions when it comes to gifts. For instance, everyone has a "favourite" Christmas candy. Mine was icy cups. Granddad got peanut brittle. My brother, it was widely known, loved ribbon candy. It became almost impossible to find and family members felt they had scored a coup whenever they found some for Doug. Last year he told me he hated ribbon candy. Fifty years of ribbon candy. And he doesn't even like it.

Gift giving is hard.  Searching for the perfect something to show how much you care, no matter what the cost.  Hoping you get it right and it will touch their hearts. What you really hope for is that you will come up with a gift they never even knew they wanted until you gave it to them. Gift receiving is harder. Because, as my mom taught me, you must be grateful even if you hate the gift. Someone thought about you and that matters more than any gift.

My mom gave me a lot of gifts over the years. Things I wanted. Things I didn't expect. Gifts tangible and intangible. Life lessons. A way of being. I'm not sure I ever expressed my gratitude. She's not here to give me anything any more. But I know she knows.

This life I live might not be the one I imagined.

But it's just what I always wanted.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Textbooks Suck. Why do we keep using them?

Why are textbooks so terrible?

It's like they beat out anything interesting or fun about a subject. The drama and the injustices and the personalities and the emotions that shaped history. 

Sure, the modern day books are filled with pictures and sidebar notes and links to web content, but the actual material makes you want to poke a fork in your eye. The new ones are no more captivating than the old ones, as I discovered reading through this old textbook published by MacMillan of Toronto in 1920. It might even be less interesting. At least "The Story of the Canadian People" had colourful tales of derring-do like this little description of the fall of the Huron: 
"When the end came, it was before the onset of seven hundred, yelling, bloodthirsty savages that the walls of the fort went down. The gallant defenders, scorning to accept quarter, were cut to pieces"
Today's history books are more about explaining the past than telling its story. Even most online content is desperately dull. You can't just take some crappy content from a book and put it online and say it's good, even if you throw in a few 2 minute videos and an online quiz.

It's like the people who wrote these materials didn't understand what makes kids tick. Or even what makes their subject interesting. And yet they are usually written by teachers who I assume love their area of specialization and are excited about learning and teaching. For my own course writing- maybe it is not filled with drama and excitement, but at least I try to make the characters come alive and point out some of the atrocities of the past and the inequalities of the present. Why sweep that under the carpet?  As a teacher I met in Grande Prairie said the other day, "That pile is getting too big. We can't even walk on it any more."

Bill Bigelow, in his article "The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools",talks about the dull and lifeless way the stories of the past are told, describing "a curriculum bound for boredom".

The crazy thing is, history is NOT boring. Including Canadian history. It's alive! It's full of things that make you say "Whoa, what?" or "Are you kidding me?" or "Why didn't I ever hear that before?" or "That is just plain wrong, how did people let that happen?"

Imagine a party of inexperienced Northwest Mounted Police towing huge York boats up a powerful river, taking instruction from a captured Blackfoot slave. Imagine that same party, on its way to Willow Point to sign Treaty Eight, caught in a huge storm on Lesser Slave Lake, followed by an amazing sunset. 

Imagine One Arrow, stripped down to nothing but a loin cloth, announcing to the Treaty Six Party "I came into the world naked, but the Great Spirit provided for me. And now you are taking our living from us!"  

Imagine the drama of a fully uniformed regimental band marching into Blackfoot Crossing in a show of strength to announce Treaty 7 negotiations, only to find almost no one there. And a couple of days later, warriors in full war paint, charging through the same land, performing amazing feats on their ponies, countering with their own display of bravery.

Why don't we read that in the books?

Could it be because history is written by the victor so there are stories we don't tell? Are we afraid of getting some details wrong? Or do publishers feel they must remove the messy, uncomfortable and unpleasant bits? Why must we sanitize the hell out of our stories so their truths don't even matter? Could it be that publishers try hard to not offend? Do they fear backlash from politicians and community groups? Is that why they whitewash everything? At the risk of being political or controversial, our textbooks are nothing at all. No wonder kids find our history so dull. We haven't told them what it is.

Detail from Kanata by Robert Houle, an interesting take on the classic "Death of Wolfe"
Or is part of the problem the publishers themselves? Generally our publishers are huge multinational corporations like Pearson whose goal is not education, but turning a profit. Why would a multinational be interested in promoting anything other than the status quo? Why would such a corporation encourage critical thinking about political systems that invest power in the elite or economic systems that value profit before justice or a history that is sometimes painful to think about? 

Keep flogging old ways of thinking and it doesn't matter what colour of font you use or how many cool photos you incorporate. You will never touch the hearts and minds of kids unless you tell real stories that appeal to their innate sense of justice and curiosity.

And so far, I haven't seen a textbook that does that.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Top 10 reasons you know it's spring

Top Ten Reasons You Know it's Spring in Northern Alberta

  1. Your local paper features a photo of a goose on open water.
  2. The last of the ice fishing shacks is towed off the lake - by boat.
  3. You see a guy wearing a parka, toque and mitts and right behind him is another guy in shorts and flip flops.
  4. You have to give the dogs a bath every time they come in from the yard.
  5. You put your winter coats away even though it's ten below every night.
  6. It takes longer to get an appointment at KalTire than it does to see your doctor.
  7. Your kid loses a boot in the mud.
  8. You get to sit on your back deck and drink margaritas without wearing a jacket.
  9. When it snows you don't even think about shovelling-it's going to melt anyway.
  10. You get an email saying wildfire season has started.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Gibara Reflections

Sometimes a place you visit stays with you. Gibara is one of those places. 

On the evening of September 7, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall in Gibara, Cuba. 

Twelve meter high waves and winds of up to 209 km an hour lashed the coast, flattening homes, decimating crops, and turning whole communities to rubble. 70% of Gibara's homes were damaged, many ruined beyond repair.

Gibara  waterfront September 2008. Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
Gibara- "la Villa Blanca"-the white city- a formerly wealthy and elegant sugar port, known for its bohemian spirit and love of the arts, now a sleepy fishing village of quiet streets and aging colonial buildings. Crushed.

Along the waterfront February 2017
The government had evacuated all residents in the path of the storm. An estimated 2.6 million Cubans-25% of the country's population- got out of the way of the storm. In its wake, seven were dead and there were 7.3 million in damages, Cuba's costliest natural disaster.

After the storm passed through Cuba, it moved on to Texas.  There, residents refused to obey their mandatory evacuation order. Despite being a "first world country", despite warnings of certain death, 200,000 of those under evacuation notice refused to leave their homes. Of the 195 who died in Hurricane Ike, 113 were in Texas.

September 2008 Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
After Ike, the people of Gibara picked themselves up and cleaned up the mess and began to rebuild. They had very little in the way of international support. But they moved on with their lives, because that is what you do.

It has taken them years. 
Downtown Gibara today
Walk the streets of Gibara today and you won't see rubble. You'll see stately buildings,sea scoured and sun bleached. 

You'll see the charming colonial Hotel Ordona and the newly opened Hotel Arsenita, waiting for tourists. 

You'll see stained glass and brilliant paint. You'll find a quaint museum with its dioramas and an enormous whale skeleton. 

You'll find hilltop miradors and cafes with spectacular views. 

You'll find peaceful homestays with lovely courtyards and rooftop patios. 

You'll see the fabulous Cinema Jiba, home to the yearly "Poor Man's Film Festival." 

You'll find older people who smile and shake your hand and thank you for coming to their town with your tourist dollar. 

You'll see dignity. 

You'll see resilience.
Hotel Arsenita

On May 15, 2011, disaster visited Slave Lake. 130 km an hour winds and a massive wall of flame raced through my town. Thousands of people jumped into their vehicles and evacuated themselves without any public warning or formal evacuation notice. There were no deaths.  But the destruction was immense. 

More than 400 homes were lost in the Slave Lake wildfire-a far cry from the 43,000 homes destroyed in Cuba by Hurricane Ike. But unlike the Cubans, the people of Slave Lake had insurance. They had government assistance. My town had millions in donations from people around the world through the Red Cross and other agencies.  

The people of Slave Lake, like the people of Gibara, picked themselves up and got on with rebuilding. Because that is what you do.

Six years on you would not know anything happened in my town. We have buried the scars of our disaster behind the facades of our beautiful new houses and lovely landscaping and brand new public buildings. You'll see no reference to the wildfire, not even in the name of the Legacy Centre, built almost entirely with disaster recovery money.
Ruins along the seawall.

Not so Gibara. 
You still see its scars in the ruined concrete along the sea wall. 
You see the damages in the broken pavements and boarded up windows.
You see the history of their struggle written on walls still waiting to be restored.

Most of all, you see its spirit. 
The spirit of its people who are quietly getting on with life. 
Because that is what you do.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Tienda Telephoto

I took this photo of my husband in Gibara. 

If you look just past his shoulder, you'll see an old man reading a paper in front of a small shop. I zoomed in with my telephoto and took some pictures. 

They tell a story.

Postcards from Holguin

Sending a postcard is a simple task. Or at least one might think so.

You buy the cards, write on them, address them and go to the post office.

And in Cuba, that's where it gets interesting.

The first clerk takes one look at the cards and indicates you should go to the second clerk. The second clerk asks where the cards are going. Three to Canada, one to the United Kingdom, you say. She shrugs like she doesn't know where that is. "Angleterre?" you say hopefully. She says nothing to you but there is a steady and loud stream of chatter to the other two ladies at their wickets. All three look put out by the imposition of this foreigner. "You must take them there," she points back to the first clerk. The lady makes a great production of locating two 50 peso stamps from the copious folders in her plastic bin. She clucks her tongue in exasperation several times. Then she jots down some notes on her scratch pad, attaching the stamps to the card with a paper clip, and passing them, along with a nail polish shaped bottle of glue, back to the first clerk who busies herself with attaching the stamps. She repeats the process with the Canadian cards, each of which require one 65 peso stamps. There is more jotting down of numbers, head shaking and tongue clucking.

"Cuanta cuesta?" you ask. "One Eighty," she says carefully in English. You pull out your money. There is great consternation. No,no,no. Only national money. You have no national money. More over-the-counter talk with the clerks. More head shaking, eye rolling and apparent disgust. The people behind you get involved, a handsome elderly gentlemen and two young women. The elderly fellow shows you the national currency. You try to give him your money in exchange. He won't take it. The clerk is about to hand you the cards, then pulls them back, then hands them to you, shooing you away like she's done with all this nonsense. "Finished," she says.

You're so confused. One of the young female customers speaks. She points to the old man who smiles a beautiful smile. "He has paid for you stamps."

"Muchos gracias!" you exclaim.

She takes you gently by the hand, and you walk out to the sidewalk where she takes the cards and deposits them in the mailbox with a flourish.

I don't know if the cards will reach their destination, but they've had an expressive send-off.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Cayo Saetia

"A machine could do his job," my husband says, nodding towards the guard coming out of the security booth on the causeway.

The guard glances into the car.

"Passeportes?" He asks.

Passports? Nobody told me we needed passports to get onto the island.

"No passports?" says the driver. He pleads with the guard, a man in his early 20s. It's well over half an hour back to the guesthouse. The guard is expressionless. No passports, no entry.

Within minutes, the Lada is back on the road, dodging potholes, making a break for it on the smooth patches. At the guesthouse I grab the passports and back we go. The guard remains emotionless as he takes the documents to the sentry booth, returning them a few minutes later.

Cayo Saetia is spectacular. It's a wildlife preserve with antelope, water buffalo and ostriches. It is said it was Castro's private island, and that Soviet visitors enjoyed firing ammo into the wildlife. I have no idea if that was true.

We drive down to the bay where visitors can take jeep safaris and ride horses. There is a palm-thatched bar and restaurant perched along the shore. Coves of coral sand spread in both directions-not a soul in sight. The water is clean and still and Caribbean blue. We spend the day snorkeling and lazing on the beach, interrupted just for a few hours by the catamarans that arrive from the resorts. The merrymakers spend most of their time in the ranchon style restaurant, half an hour on the beach, then head out, drinks in hand.

On the dot of five, the Lada returns. Back to the sentry hut. The same guard is there. He searches the vehicle with his eyes, and when he sees mine, he steps toward the car. Wordlessly, he hands me an exquisite flower, freshly woven of palm fronds. As if to say, ""I'm sorry for your troubles."

"A machine wouldn't do that", my husband says.

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Road to Nicaro

Bougainvillea splash wild across the hillside. On the other side of the road, the Atlantic fades blue to the horizon with its improbable sugarloaf mountains. 

We're on the road to Nicaro.

A Spanish version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" plays on the driver's state-of-the-art MP3 player, jerryrigged to the dash with a customized piece of plastic. It's a "good car, an American car" -a late 1950s Ford. It floats over the potholes. The music changes to a Cuban pop song and the driver's mom and dad sing along, smiling.

Coming toward us is a teenager on his cellphone. His shorts are brilliant yellow. They match his sideways ball cap. His T-shirt is yellow and the same pink as the bougainvillea. His grandfather sits beside him, hands lazily holding the reins of the horse drawn hay cart.

On the road to Nicaro, anything seems possible.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Presence of the Past

Lessons for Kenney Part 2

Photos of my ancestors look down from my walls.  My paternal great grandfather, Samuel Hartford, who came from Vermont to open a general store in Neepawa. My maternal great grandparents Charles and Eliza McNaught who moved from Brantford to pioneer in the Beaverlodge area. My paternal grandmother Muriel Fryer, a nurse of possibly uncertain parentage. My maternal grandfather who was sent to Canada as an orphan. My parents who chose to start a new life in a brand new town. 

Their faces look down on me every day.

The impact of my ancestors of my life is immeasurable. I carry their DNA and their actions and their life stories and the secrets they never told. I carry their sense of adventure. Their curiosity and openness and willingness to make changes in their lives. I'm influenced by the sacrifices they made when they left their own land to find a better lives with more opportunities and religious freedoms. Their quests to find and make communities where they belonged and where their descendants could thrive.

I carry my own past wherever I go. Who I am is the sum of all my life's experiences as well as the experiences of those who went before. My aching ankle, the voices of my children, the man I married, the job I have, the place I live. Voices I listened to. Voices I ignored. Choices I made, for good or for ill.  I am 58 years old. My past looms large behind me as my future shrinks.

I also carry my mistakes and the mistakes of those who went before and the indignities we have suffered as well as the indignities we inflicted, knowingly or unknowingly, on others. Financial risks that didn't pay off. Options not available due to class and gender and world events. Misunderstandings of culture. Misappropriation of lands. Part of my heritage. A legacy I carry forward. 

The past is all around me.

It cloaks me and protects me.

It gives me hope for tomorrow.

It is a burden I bear.

Just as my past led me to my present, so has our shared Canadian history led us to the nation we celebrate today. Knowing that history illuminates a way forward.  Hiding it blinds us. For generations we as a country suppressed the ugly parts of our past as we focused on the present. A present that was only fully open to some of us. Understanding our story and knowing our truths is important. Otherwise how do we navigate our way into the future? 

The Germans have a word. "Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung". The attempt to come to terms with the actions of the past. Acknowledging the truth and its attending shame and guilt. Here in Canada, coming to an understanding of our own history is something we are just beginning. Here, we call it reconciliation. How do we, as Canadians, work towards reconciling the actions of our respected ancestors with the indignities offered to our first peoples?  How do we come to terms with that?  

History is not only what happened in the past. It's not just a list of dates and events. It's with us in our institutions and our laws and ideologies. It's with us in the faces of the homeless and the silence of the marginalized. As I understand the impact of my past on my future, so too do I hope my students understand that their histories and the history of this land matter. All of their histories. The good history and the bad history. The history of privilege and the history of oppression. All of their stories make up the story of Canada. We need to know these stories and know how they shape us in order to move forward together.

The past is with us always. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Agents of Change

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney Part 1

Whether it's teaching 5 year olds to be kind to one another or encouraging junior high kids to raise funds for charity or reminding 18 year olds to vote according to their principles, for decades Alberta’s teachers have encouraged kids to be actively involved as citizens in a democratic society. Any education system in a democratic nation promotes the idea that we need informed, thoughtful, active and contributing members in our society. 

If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the evidence which is found in Alberta’s Social Studies curriculum over the past 6 decades.

In 1947, the Department of Education in Alberta wrote “Society wants and needs good citizens.  It is the business of the Social Studies courses to help produce these good citizens, well-adjusted socially and well equipped mentally, citizens capable of thinking intelligently and determined to do their part in bringing about social progress.”

Following on the heels of World War II, Albertans knew firsthand what dictatorships and propaganda looked like, fully aware that “This is an age of propaganda fraught with pitfalls for the unwary, the ignorant, the unthinking and the mentally unawakened.” The Department of Education in a province governed by Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning was determined that schools would train critical thinkers who were equipped to separate fact from fiction and make decisions based on evidence, not emotions. Students who were committed to “social betterment”. Students who had “an appreciation of the worth and dignity of the individual and a desire to preserve the rights of minority groups and maintain justice for all.”

In 1970, under soon-to-be-defeated Social Credit leader Harry Strom, a new curriculum was unveiled “…with optimism about the nature of man and the efficacy of democratic ideals, the new social studies involves free and open inquiry into individual and social values that will serve the humanistic goals of education by offering students experience in living and not just preparation for living…students will deal not only with the “what is” but also with the “what ought to be” and will have the opportunity to make this world a more desirable place in which to live.”

By 1978, with Progressive Conservative Peter Lougheed as premier, the curriculum called for the development of students who are “sensitive to their human and natural environment, with intellectual independence, moral maturity, effective participants in community affairs” which by 1985 evolved to preparing “students for responsible participation in a changing world.” By 1990, under Progressive Conservative Premier Don Getty  the ultimate aim of education was “to develop the ability of the individual so that he might fulfill personal aspirations while making a positive contribution to society…including justice, fair play and fundamental rights, responsibilities and freedoms.”

Our current program of studies, implemented in 2005 under Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein reads “Social Studies develops the key values and attitudes, knowledge and understanding, and skills and processes necessary for students to become active and responsible citizens, engaged in the democratic process and aware of their capacity to affect change in their communities, societies and world.”

Yet today members of the opposition deride the current NDP government for suggesting that students should be "agents of change." Why? For the last 60 years, no matter what the ideology of the day, our education system has tried to teach kids to seek a better way forward-not just for themselves but also for society. Whether we call it “social betterment”, “progress”, ”the opportunity to make the world more desirable,” “making a positive contribution”, or “the capacity to affect change”, successive generations of educators in our province have advocated for students to work towards creating a better world for all. Recognizing that the status quo isn't good enough, and understanding that "To know and not to act is not to know," they encourage their students to play a part in making a better, fairer and more just world.

Education should give children knowledge about the world. It should help them think critically and creatively. It should give them confidence to follow their dreams. It should help break the cycle of poverty. It should show them the world for what it is, including the marvels that are worth preserving and the injustices they need to do something about while providing them with the abilities and skills to act.

I think of the hundreds of kids I have worked with over the years. Kids who are compassionate, decent human beings - great parents and active community volunteers. Scientists and sales people. Professionals and artists and journalists. Conservatives and Liberals and New Democrats and those with no political affiliation. Kids who are now adults who are making changes every day in their families, their communities, their workplaces and on the global stage.

As a parent and a teacher, I want my children to be empowered in their own lives and as global citizens, with the skills, attitudes and knowledge that will help them create a positive future for themselves and the planet. I want them to keep reaching and striving to make changes in their world. What that change looks like is up to them.