A letter to a Syrian Refugee

Dear Syrian New Canadian,
Welcome to Canada! I’m sorry I was not at the airport, along with our photogenic Prime Minister, to welcome you to our cold country where the hearts are warm and the feelings are mushy. Actually I was feeling a bit jealous, for when I came to this country nearly 30 years ago from a similarly war-torn one like yours, with a wife and two small children (one sick and the other post-operative), there was no one to welcome us; we just checked into an apartment and started life, funded only by our savings. Oh yes, the diffident immigration officer did say “Welcome to Canada,” after stamping our passports and accepting us as landed immigrants.

Let me re-assure you that you have made a good choice in coming to Canada. But instead of the warm and fuzzies, let me give you a few do’s and don’ts that you need to be aware of here, facts that the immigration brochures do not reveal, as we are, for the most part, a polite nation.

1) Get yourself a job as soon as you can. Any job! Canadian Experience gets you into progressively better jobs faster than all the credentials you can bring from your home country. Besides, the longer you stay unemployed the higher the risk-hire you become. And don’t quit a job before getting the next one. We love to hire currently-employed people because someone else has already done the filtering and taken the risk on you. And when you get a job, work hard at it. Luck is the product of hard work.
2) Unless you wish to reside in Quebec, learn “Canadian English” as soon as you can, replete with “eh”s and “duh”s and other expressions. And when you are stuck for words, throw in stuff like “basically,” “that’s a good question,” “as a matter of fact,” etc – these are acceptable fillers.
3) Do pay your taxes and obey the law. The law here is what makes this country different from where we came from; it’s terribly slow once you get into its clutches, and outcomes are based on compromise not justice. That’s why when two Canadians bump into each other they both say “sorry” and go their way without getting into a punch up or a shoot-out. And don’t try to change this law with imported ones either. We like it methodical and labyrinthine. Just don’t get tangled up with the law and you’ll be fine.
4) Do learn to accommodate your neighbour. That’s how this place works. I don’t know my next door neighbour nor subscribe to his peculiar habits and customs. But I respect his space and he gives me mine and I offer to look after his place when he is away on holidays, and he does the same for me.

1) Don’t try to live on subsidy for longer than you can. We have welfare and medicare and EI and other props. These are very addictive and are only for those genuinely in need.
2) Try to become a net producer rather than a net consumer. We love shopping and buying things we don’t need that only put us in debt, especially after Christmas. This is an Achilles Heel that will ultimately be our undoing. Don’t fall for this trap of living today based on tomorrow’s potential earnings.
3) While you are free to indulge in your customs and rituals that give you your identity, don’t impose them on others. And, like me, you might want to sample, even adopt, some of the customs that make us Canadian: we play Christmas songs from November to December, we go crazy during Hockey season, we unite around a National Anthem that brings a clutch to my throat every time I sing it, we like to criticize our politicians without shooting them, we drink a lot of coffee, flush a lot of toilets and eat doughnuts even if it’s not good for us. Please don’t try to change these customs, because if I don’t hear my Christmas songs on the radio and in public places anymore, I’m going to be pretty pissed off!
4) Make sure your kids get an education, integrate and become Canadian. This “multi-cultural” business is good only to get newcomers through the door. But after a few years here we all have to find some commonality that hangs us all together as Canadians.

This may be a bit much to absorb all at once. Sorry. Besides, you need to bask in the celebrity status with which you have been welcomed into this country; many who came before you have not had this privilege. And you have earned it, after your treacherous voyage from your war-torn homeland. So relax and let it soak in during this Christmas season. But remember, that in these Attention Deficit times, the show will be over very soon, the audience would have moved on to the next big thing and you will be left on the stage, alone, wondering what happened. That’s when I hope you will read and re-read my do’s and don’ts and find them helpful. They are offered from the heart and not from the handbook.

Canada is a land of milk and honey, but only if you bring (or grow) your own cows and bees. Since you have come to this country with nothing more than yourselves and a few belongings, I suggest you cut through the hoopla ASAP (another acronym we use excessively) and get down to seriously growing your personal treasure chest. And with hard work, you will. All the best!

A Fellow New Canadian

P.S. – It might interest you to know that, by definition, you will remain a New Canadian for the rest of your life – another quirk of this place! Enjoy!

Whose invasion is just?

There is brouhaha in the media these days about the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the subsequent referendum in that territory. Western governments call the invasion unjust, and the subsequent referendum invalid; Putin is labelled a blackguard • a throwback to Hitler, they say. By whose standards are these incursions into sovereign territories judged? By whose standards are referendums that are put together with obscure questions that deliver confused answers considered just?

I’m going to flip the coin to other “invasions”; Iraq by the USA and its allies on the hunt for mythical weapons of mass destruction comes to mind. The trail of destruction and the political vacuum created in that country has still not been accounted for. The Quebec referendum of 1995 asked a vague question: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” – Joe Q Public was left wondering whether voting “Yes” or “No” would still end up in Quebec going its own way. So how just were these western invasions and referendums? Is there some western hypocrisy at work in the latest accusations on the Russians?

Winston Churchill is accredited with the quote “history is written by the victors.” There is an adjunct to this: “The other guy is always wrong.” While I am not a fan of Putin, who is trying to return Russia to the Rule of One, I question our home team’s profit•seeking end runs during this latest Crimean debacle. For example, how much would our Canadian PM like to see Canadian oil and gas replace Russian exports to the European Union? Is that why he is playing David in front of the Russian Goliath while the rest of his G7 counterparts are playing lambs?

The unfortunate fact is that most regimes that have fallen in recent times, be it Egypt, Libya and now Ukraine, in these “spring• like” civilian uprisings were corrupt; that much is clear from the economic wreckage left behind when their leaders fled or were killed. The populations of these countries were left liberated but confused, angry but unaware of how to chart their lives. To arbitrarily walk into a country and take over, create a vacuum, or prop up equally inept replacement regimes just because they show support to either the West or the East does not help; these places will sink into dysfunction and failed statehood in no time. And then East and West will look at each other and ask, “What happened?” Just ask a poor Afghan who in this lifetime saw Russians followed by Westerners run over his country and leave with their tails between their legs having accomplished only what their propaganda machines made us believe, just ask him whether he is better off today, whether the invasions from the East or the West were just?

Perhaps what is needed is that the people of these hot spots decide for themselves, in however crude a manner, and over however long a period of time, how they wish to govern their lives, and all do•gooders from the outside need butt•out. Isn’t that How The West Was Won?


Dating Game for Wannabe Skilled Immigrants

When I read the recent headline in our national newspaper announcing that Canada was opening a website where prospective employers and skilled foreign workers could date each other, one side of me was heartened and the other side petrified.

I was heartened, because when I came to this country a quarter century ago under the category of “skilled worker,” lured by the first world, “Brand Canada” lifestyle that was on tap, there were no such dating sites. All the Canadian High Commission in my native homeland had to work from was an outdated, typed list of required skills, among them, Undertaker and Sales Representative. Well, as I have a slight problem working with dead bodies, I qualified as a sales representative. When I arrived here, I got a bit of a shock: there were sales reps coming out of all nooks and crannies, including the mass produced ones from those dreaded telemarketing sweat shops. Thankfully, I used my “selling skills” to land myself another job, not one on the High Commission’s list, thankfully.

I was petrified at this news headline, because I have seen that first world lifestyle erode over the years, where the skilled workers of my generation have been reduced to a nation of Walmart and Dollar store frequent flyers, where training and retraining for displaced workers have been cut, where the unemployed or underemployed are those now 50•60 year old once•skilled workers and their progeny, the 20•30 year•olds who received a university education and an attitude as a reward from their parents; a whole segment of the middle class relegated to the wings while a new crop of skilled immigrants replace them. The dating game will make it easier to say, “Screw the locals, they cost too much and have higher expectations, let’s bring in the lean, mean and hungry.”

I still believe in the immigrant dream. It’s a rich experience that grows the soul, if not the pocket book. But Canada’s status as an “immigrant country” does not absolve it of its obligations towards preserving that first world lifestyle – its key selling point to newcomers. And that includes growing and maintaining a healthy middle class. And there is no free ride in not having to pay for education and training within the country and merely plucking the best and brightest from overseas who have been educated at the cost of their national governments, capitalizing on a foreign tin•pot dictator or corrupt regime that do not see the value of their human resources.

And the caveat emptor for the wannabe skilled immigrant is, “Are you willing to get only about 20 years of benefit from this system (that is, if you arrive before the age of 30. If you come later, the reaping period is exponentially shorter) before you are put out to pasture or forced to use your entrepreneurial skills to start your own business?” Skills atrophy over time and today’s skilled worker is tomorrow’s re•trainee. If we cut the re•training, there is an even shorter shelf•life for the skilled worker. Re•training should also be comprehensive to recognize the aging worker; we cannot always be on an upward career trajectory: the careerist should be trained for jobs that go up the ladder and others that descend gracefully with age, maintaining dignity and respect for the individual at all times– another hallmark of the first world lifestyle.

Ah, but then all this could be too much to ask, when the temptation is there to slink back to that dating site and lure another skilled sucker to our shores.

Our Canadian Spring Uprising

We recently celebrated 100 days of student unrest in Quebec over increases in tuition fees in that province. At first I did not pay much attention. No one takes a price increase lying down, I figured, one has to question it, raise a fuss and hope that the price•increaser backs down. But when this protest got ugly with street demonstrations, destroyed public property, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, mass arrests, draconian legislative changes, the provincial government being pushed to the brink, and more than just students joining in the demonstrations, I started to take notice.

Was this our Canadian equivalent of the Arab Spring? Unlike those other countries whose citizens were fighting for freedom and opportunity, our students were protesting a modest fee hike that would still see their fees among the lowest in Canada. They were fighting for a European entitlement model that has seen many of those states descend into financial turmoil; they were not being grateful that, compared to our southern neighbour, our tuition fees are about a tenth the cost. Was there something more than student fee hikes driving this dissent? Was this another unstructured expression of dissatisfaction like the Occupy movement of a few months ago? Or of those Arab Springs that had swelled so ferociously to topple governments? In a peaceful country like Canada, do we need an Arab Spring? Were our students becoming pawns to other forces?

If the central issue is still tuition hikes (I hope it still is), I’d like to offer some suggestions to both sides—students and educators alike—on how we may get past this sorry state of confrontation and deadlock. These are apolitical ideas, based on common sense and are mine alone:
1. With the technology available today, education delivery costs must come down, not go up. With online courses we do not need to continue with outdated models of classroom attendance, live lectures, and bricks and mortar infrastructure. We might even reduce the number of universities and increase enrollment while reducing costs, with technology•powered delivery. We are doing it everywhere else! I even stumbled on an online PhD.
2. We need to get away from university rankings, credential•ism and pedigree boosting which only create elitism among universities, a ranking of winners and losers. The winners command higher prices based on sizzle rather than steak. Besides it’s tough to graduate from a university with a pile of student debt only to find that due to its poor advertising, one’s alma mater is now ranked among the “also ran’s.”
3. Standardization: I have a hard time understanding why a student when transferring between universities has to jump through hoops to get her credits from the first university recognized at the other and often has to repeat courses at the new university. What happened to education standards, at least at the undergraduate level?
4. Pay for results not for tenure. If a piece of research is produced that is of merit and extends the field in which the professor practices, then pay for the value of the research and not for the professor’s lifestyle. This is also happening everywhere else, so why not in academia?
5. Enrollment should be targeted. “Bum’s in seats” to grab government funding should give way to the “right bum in the right seat.” And please refresh the seats periodically so they fit into the real world and can earn their occupying bums a decent wage.
6. Peaceful demonstrations are one thing, but when public property is damaged, it only increases costs to society. Also, when classes are missed, they have to be made up somewhere. So my advice to the protesting students is, “Kudos to you, you have demonstrated good consumer resistance and made your point. But now it’s time to salvage your credibility, your parents’ money and your student loans, so please get back to class.”

A government subsidized education is a privilege, for both students and educators. Don’t screw it up, guys!

And if this Mess in Montreal is about a more sinister issue other than tuition hikes, that will be the subject of another blog post.

Positioning – or lying to win votes. Are we falling for it?

It is (municipal) election time in my part of the world and the campaigns (including the mud•slinging ones) are out in force. To play the straight guy is to risk losing these days. So go out and smear your opponents with the smelliest shit is the mantra it seems. And while you are at it, make sure that all those skeletons in your own closet are firmly locked away behind an unbreakable door and that the key had been buried deeper than even those brave miners in Chile.

This is also a time for slanting the truth, or “positioning” as they call it in marketing parlance. If you look at some of the larger issues that have been positioned recently it makes my skin crawl.

My favourite is the one on US vs. Canadian Medicare. My US colleagues, so bombarded by ultra•right fear•mongering, surreptitiously ask me if indeed our Medicare is “death ordained by the government”? When I laugh and ask them in turn whether their (sick peoples’) deaths are not determined by profit•seeking insurance companies instead of a deficit•happy government, they scratch their heads and say, “Oh, didn’t think of it like that!”

And the Long Form Census is another one. “We will not know who is living in this country anymore,” says one group, “Facebook has more info on us than the LFC,” says another, “It’s a violation of our human rights” says yet another, even though the Charter of Rights came into being in 1982 and the LFC has operated under its aegis all this time.

How about that other “long” one • the Long Gun Registry? The Tories, wanting to get rid of this burden on their tax revenues, insist that the registry is a duplication of information already held by the police. The police deny this and say that they need the LGR to keep tabs on the bad guys. Then a former top cop of Toronto himself, wanting to grab a seat on the Tory bench, decides to relegate his former colleagues the lair of liars and goes public stating that the LGR is a waste of money. At this point in the debate, my neck is developing a crick like an umpire’s at a tennis game watching a rapidly rallying ball across the net.

All this “bog” only serves to remind me that writers must be failed politicians, those who jumped off the political bandwagon in order to “lie to tell a higher truth” through their fiction, while leaving their erstwhile colleagues to “lie to win more votes” through their positioning.

Olympic Reflections

So we owned the podium, eh? But the naysayers, our Canadian alter•ego, had a lot to say about it before we got there. Our typical Canadian hang•up got in the way during the dog days of the Olympics, during that middle stretch after the great gold performance by young Bilodeau, when the medals seemed to dry up. The naysayers seized the advantage, and many of my fellow countrymen involuntarily followed suit, falling into their pet blame game: blame VANOC for their aggressive American•style slogan, blame Vancouver for technical malfunctions and chain mail fences, blame God for denying Whistler its bucketfuls of snow, blame Canada for being assertive; why couldn’t we just show up for the game like we normally did in the past and went away empty handed, why did we have to win, we hewers of wood and drawers of water, how dare we desire to come of age on the world stage and say that we are a proud nation? The naysayers started to give me a belly ache and made me want to immigrate again.

Then our Canadian Olympians started to turn the tables on the unbelievers in their quiet, unobtrusive way (well, perhaps the Canadian women hockey players got a bit carried away, but who cares, at least they could drink and drive a Zamboni, even if some of them were underage – let any naysayer who did not take a drink when they were underage throw the first stone!) And before we knew it we had more gold medals than anyone has ever had in history. “Stop! This is too much for our Canadian modesty!” shouted the naysayers. “Screw off,” I replied, “I am enjoying this—finally!” And then to crown it all, our glorious men’s hockey team turned around what looked like another classic US come•from•behind victory pulled recently at the World Juniors, with a “take this and suck it” goal that sunk our southern neighbours for good in overtime. We were done, we owned the podium—no doubt about it.

After 22 years of being in love with this country, I was finally also proud of it. We stood in front of the world and we did our country proud, showcasing it for all its variety and excellence in sport, entertainment, culture, diversity, tolerance, fun, and humour. And we showed the world that we were just not a bunch of good natured, apologetic, nice, quitters; that we also had balls. I bet our American cousins did not know that William Shatner was Canadian, eh? We even managed to get President Obama to go shopping for Molson beer – waddayaknow!

After watching these Olympics, I became a firm believer that despite the shit that is going on in the world right now, with earthquakes and tsunamis and wars and economic meltdowns, we need symbols like these games, and role models like these athletes, to give us a jolt of encouragement. These young Olympians train for years for a few seconds of performance, where a fragment of a second’s improvement can catapult a player from fifteenth to first place. And they never give up. Thank God we have them, and thank God we invest in them, naysayers notwithstanding, for when the tough times come, it will be these future leaders who will say, “Hang in there, we can ride this out. And we can win!”

Way to go, Canada! Let’s own the podium from here on…

Looking Beyond

The waters are calm when looking over the ocean from the battlements of the Fort that guards the entrance of the harbour at Santiago de Cuba. Off to the right over the horizon lies Jamaica in the sun, and to the left is Haiti in its destruction, while down below, in 1898, the Spanish galleons had come out in single file, like innocent sheep, only to be sunk by American warships lying in wait outside the mouth of the harbour. This fort is a vantage point of history, recent and past, representing the beauty and horrors of life. I could not see any of this at street level. “Look beyond,” my wise teachers and mentors had told me, “and you will find vistas never seen before.” I was reminded of their words while sitting up there in those battlements.

I wrote the paragraph above while touring Santiago de Cuba with a group of Canadian writers recently. There were many such set pieces that I captured on paper in this land that seems to be frozen in time, reminding me of what life was like when I was growing up in a tropical island somewhere else in the world, where scarcities had been a fact of life, where the developed world was out there somewhere, a place impossible for us forgotten ones to get to. I remember climbing the giant Jam tree in the front yard of our family home, perching myself in its highest branches and looking out over the paddy fields, watching the planes fly overhead and wondering when it would be my turn to fly away.

Over the years, by a combination of looking beyond, being dissatisfied with the status quo, striving, and luck (isn’t luck the product of hard work?) I seemed to have swapped places with those fat•cat tourists who used to come to my island home and dole out money as if there was no end to the flow. In Cuba, this time around, it was my turn to dish out the pesos, while the locals looked on in anticipation. I wanted to tell them not to be fooled, that there was a finite end to this supply of money; that even in rich countries like Canada, bounty came from hard work, and that jobs could end with a small downslide of the stock market ticker. But what did they know about stock market tickers? All they knew was that they worked hard too, but did not have the money to show for it, so according to them, we must have some other unknown secret. It’s because of freedom and private enterprise, I wanted to say, but being a man following the Middle Way, I did not want to be a poster boy for Capitalism.

I did not know what to tell these islanders, and returned from my trip somewhat frustrated. In retrospect, I should have told them to go to a Fort•like place and look beyond, look to the sunshine and destruction in lands beyond, look at the world with all its possibilities, good and bad, and pick a spot to play, beyond one’s comfort zone. Perhaps that was the only way out beyond scarcity and insularity, the path towards growth, and towards finding breakthrough solutions beyond the “tried and true” that provide only marginal returns and keeps one like the unenlightened frog, forever circling in the slow•boiling cauldron.

Voting – a forgotten civic duty?

The Opposition had finally got its act together it seemed and was going to make a fall election happen – not! The timing was apparently not right – again!

I wonder what the real holdback was this time? Courage? Or anticipated low voter turnout? Maybe that’s the real concern. And why do our voters not show up? Apathy? Democracy taken for granted? A neglected birthright? A “let the other guy vote because nothing changes anyway?” attitude? A “I have to hold down three jobs to survive, I have no time to vote” excuse?

Oh, yes we seem to have lots of excuses—not only for not calling elections, but for not voting at them. Not very healthy, I dare say.

I remember feeling proud the first time I received my Canadian citizenship— I was able to vote again! I had only had that experience once in my life in my home country, where thereafter elections became fewer and far between due to civil wars or nepotistic rulers who kept arbitrarily extending their rule by edict. After becoming a Canadian citizen, I voted in every municipal, provincial and federal election since.

For inspiration, I look over at that desert and mountainous country half a world away, which our young soldiers are valiantly trying to defend in its conversion to democracy. Over there, elections were held as planned, despite vote rigging, death threats and other obstacles. Citizens, who could barely sign their names, braved machine guns, bombs and other forms of terror, to go out and vote, exercising their desire to make their world a better place, believing that despite all the mayhem and corruption, the worm would turn and democracy would prevail, believing in Winston Churchill’s famous dictum, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Perhaps there is a lesson from that desert outpost – that when you lose something (or never had it) you fight a tougher battle to get it back (or obtain it for the first time), but that when you have something that is considered a birthright, you can fall into complaisance and easily stand to lose it.

Therefore, I am advocating that as much as reading 50 books a year become a new civic duty, voting at the next election for the party of your choice return to active civic duty—if the Opposition ever forces an election, that is.