Friday, October 24, 2014

Remember Justin Bourque? A RANT!

As this tragic autumnal week comes to an end and Remembrance Day feels closer and more palpable than it has in even recent years, the federal government is making moves to increase the powers of police and spy agencies in ways that may compromise Canadian rights and freedoms despite the comments made to reaffirm the commitment to Canadian values and inclusion in the immediate aftermath of the assaults in Ottawa on October 22.

The link to jihadism or to ISIS has been determined by someone be a limited one and many experts have suggested that the attacks in Ottawa and St Jean-sur-Richelieu were the actions of drifters who were mentally ill and had lengthy criminal records rather than members of a coordinated terrorist group.  In fact it seems that the perpetrators of the two attacks on Armed Forces personnel have more in common with Justin Bourque who attacked RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick this past June 4.

These requests for increased powers were not made in the aftermath of the shootings in New Brunswick or upon the House reconvening this autumn. In the case of Justin Bourque as with the two deceased criminals this week, an individual who has adopted more radical beliefs and accumulated a record of criminal behaviour has acted in a manner that has shaken our sense of security and raised our concern for the safety of our protectors but Bourque's actions did not prompt such actions or calls by the government.

A review of the profiles of these three criminals would likely reveal striking similarities in their paths and their decisions to conduct themselves in such violent and radicalized ways. The distinction is that Bourque's radicalization seemed to connect to pro-gun or extreme right wing activities while this week's criminals pursued Islamist affiliations and were ultimately rejected by the mosques they tried to associate with.

The religious affiliations were a medium for expressing a hate that was deeply entrenched and merely needed terms to be expressed in, just as Bourque's was. Is there a tolerance for Bourque's redneck or good ol' boy roots that seems to be more tolerable or harder to provoke fear around? Religious leaders are now being scrutinized to the same extent as gun shop owners and leaders of overtly radical organizations within our borders and the governments calls for actions this week when the profiles indicate that these men did not have significant associations with larger Canada-based groups that supported them in completing their acts of violence. As the profiles indicate at this point, each of these three men acted alone or with the barest minimum of help and the difference is that two of them have claimed what appear to be tenuous and self-serving links to a religion.

The entire picture of each of these individuals needs to be examined and all of it needs to be accounted for rather than shaped to foster a narrative or story that demonizes some individuals over others out of sheer convenience. We cannot respond to these problems with responses that merely seize on the power and accessibility of a crime's iconography to mold policy.  Once again, the federal government seems committed to pushing for policy based on ideology and fear rather than a careful weighing of the evidence. If there were a careful assessment of the actions and profiles of all three men there would be a chance of implementing policies and responses that would reduce the likelihood of similar recurrences of each of these incidents. If the choice is to generate policies that are dedicated to xenophobia and racial profiling, next Bourque, Couture-Rouleau or Zehaf-Bibeau will shock us and etch themselves into our consciousness once again and leave haunting memories forever afterward.

The Hero is the Last One to Admit It

Over the course of this week there has been an incredible sequence of events throughout Canada, one
that sends thoughts to other places or other eras in our own history to come to terms with what unfolded. With the stunning and heart-rending events in St. Jean-sur-Richilieu and in Ottawa, there is a heightened sense of fear but of appreciation as well. There has been occasion to revisit what defines Canada and a commitment to that rather than the confident assumptions that we allow ourselves when all seems well. People have probably come closer together in the aftermath and the effort made once again to be that much more inclusive. Things that we take for granted earn our attention once again.

We have dusted off the word hero this week as well and without a doubt Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-At-Arms for the House of Commons who acted sudden valiantly and promptly on Wednesday morning in the face of what unfolded in the marble corridors and among the columns of the Hall of Honour. He was honoured with a lengthy standing ovation that he was humbled and troubled by. There was probably a significant part of the man who hoped and wished that his actions on October 22 would restore normalcy and that the greeting he received did not happen. He would argue that he was doing his job, that he was doing what was within his capacity and responsibility in his role and position and that it was within the scope of what he spent his professional life being prepared to do. If you sat down with the man, he would probably be able to tell of other occasions where he was challenged far more than he was on October 22.  He may have acted during that moment when instinct has kicked in and fear has not had the opportunity to influence thoughts or stir dread and anticipation.

Many people that we attribute heroism to -- fire fighters, police, members of the military, ER staff in hospitals to name a very few -- would shrug that attribution off, insisting that they are trained for it, prepared and equipped for it and that they would not want to have any other job. They would even add that someone has to do it (without adding that it is a dirty job.) In Mr. Vickers' case, part of the surprise that has magnified his heroism this week, is the ceremonial role many would assume he had been restricted to and the potential consequences that may have resulted from what unfolded in Ottawa.

When we think of ceremonial roles, our thoughts of course turn to Nathan Cirillo.  Standing in traditional uniform with an empty gun at the National War Memorial at the moment he was gunned down. The layers of symbolism are to ponder for some time but he stood guard at the memorial as evidence of our commitment to remember all men and women who have worn that uniform on behalf of our country and the values that we have stood for and been forged by.

In the aftermath of what happened to him and to Patrice Vincent this week, it is now a challenge and a risk for members of the Canadian Armed Forces to wear their uniforms. In a more innocent time, my father would pick up a hitchhiker who happened to be in uniform and it stood then, as it ought to now as an reassuring indicator of the character and commitment of the people that wore it. Today they must don their uniform cautiously tempered by the realization that apart from being a representative of the nation and its values, they are now potentially a target for that act as well. The simplest of symbols, going beyond the uniform to the poppy and other objects that we regard with fondness and pride are subject to some anxiety.  In that, we walk our streets and go through our lives with a greater caution but hopefully with a greater confidence in the things Canada has long stood for and a commitment to protect it.

The next heroic acts ought to multiply and all of us must be more conscious of the bravery it takes to be inclusive, trusting and committed to the values that our flag, our poppy, our soldiers and our everyday lives embody.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jordin Tootoo's Journey

Every journey to the stardom of a professional athlete is a unique one. There may be a few similar templates for many of the stories. The stories that are told most often are those of the stars who may be familiar one with the prodigy emerging early and the clamour among the competitors at the professional level to rising acclaim that the protagonist achieves during his or her career. Stephen Brunt has done exceptional work with his most recent hockey biographies, Searching For Bobby Orr and Gretzky's Tears crafting stories that not only define the players but also the eras that the respective icons played during.

With All The Way, Jordin Tootoo's account of his path from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Stephen Brunt lets Jordin Tootoo tell his story in his words and his voice and the story is a vivid one that sheds more light on Tootoo's heritage and background. Brunt's voice occurs intermittently at the start of each chapter in most issues to set the scene. Tootoo tells his story. Some of the elements of the story might be common with other sports biographies. Tootoo's talent when he first got the opportunity to play organized hockey earned him attention and helped pave the way for his progression from house leagues in the south and on to the WHL, Team Canada and NHL.

The similarities between Tootoo's odyssey and other hockey players' are limited to those few. 

Tootoo story begins in Rankin Inlet, with a strong sense of place.  The attachment to the tundra and the confidence that comes from there is evident in the story he tells and in the struggles that he and his family experienced in their home (as opposed to the land). He frankly and starkly describes the battles with alcoholism that have ravaged his family and his community.  His own battles with alcoholism are disclosed as well.  There is a sense that his potential on ice was never achieved, perhaps because of his role as an energy guy or fighter, but the greater question is about the possibilities for his family and his community as they try to heal and find their way forward.

Tootoo's sobriety and marriage make for a rewarding and reassuring conclusion to this chapter of his life and Joseph Boyden in his introduction to the book suggests that there is more ahead.  The chapters ahead make for plenty to look forward to as Jordin Tootoo makes his next steps embracing his roles husband and role model.

Patrick Hanlon, author of this post has recently self-published his account of his teaching career in the Canadian Arctic.  Exiled From the Tundra is available for Kindle.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Igloo Lesson

The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming e-book Exiled From the Tundra: A Teacher's Arctic Memoir.

I do not know if it was a moment where I ultimately gave up or if it was more a matter of finding some zen-like simplicity, but late one morning in March, I interrupted class to ask them, "What do you want me to teach you?"

Mary spoke first, “How to live off the land.”

I joked that the first thing I would try to teach them was to look for two sticks to make a fire with — a useless endeavour this far north of the tree line. I had no idea how to teach them how to live in their environment or educate them in a manner that resembled what Inuit forebears taught children for generations or millennia. Their responses included things that I could be capable of teaching them, such as cooking, but their traditional skills dominated the list. They wanted me to teach them to make the most of the resources that were accessible to them and do so in a way that was consistent with the way their families had long lived and thrived on the land. 

Nothing grand. No mention of test prep. Just what they needed to know to help them get by. One response left me slack-jawed before I could muster clarification.

“Igloos?!  Your parents are supposed to teach you that.”

“But you’re the teacher.”

“Still, I can’t teach you that.”

“You have to. It’s your job.”

That brief exchange captured the essence of what the schools had done to the relationships between Inuit parents and their children. I wondered how much time the kids spent with their parents out on the land on weekends or during the summers. Their parents went out on the land from time to time, but whenever they did, they left the kids behind in the village to entertain themselves or look after one another.

The old insistence that the students attend classes, despite the responsibilities that Inuit kids have had for generations rings hollow when all the teachers have to offer are long division, the past perfect, and antiquated Science texts. The knowledge the kids accumulated within the walls of the school does little to prepare them for life in either the north or the south. Instead of learning from their parents and grandparents, they spent their time with me. I had little that compared with the valuable life lessons indicated progress towards viability, responsibility and adulthood. All of that wisdom and education was discarded in favour of schooling with kallunait (southern) teachers the likes of me - at times well-intentioned, but often uninformed, ill-suited to the task at hand and if not parasitic, then at the very least, unfeasible. As the school was constituted while I was there, it was difficult to point to success that warranted the time and money that went into it each year.

For the school to enhance the life of the kids and the community, it would have to overhaul of the curriculum and involve the community. A more collaborative relationship with parents would make them more aware of what was happening and encourage them to influence the school by either providing the teachers with insights about the culture or the community or asking questions about why teachers did things the way they did. One thing that I learned from my translator during my first round of parent-teacher interviews was that all of my students were adopted rather than living with their biological parents. That knowledge was gained by happenstance after spending a good part of the day with one of the adults from the village. It did not dramatically alter the way I taught the kids, but it informed my work and provided a key insight that I could integrate into a greater understanding of the community I was working in. More interaction with the parents would help the teachers become more familiar with the community and culture and perhaps help the school adapt more to serve the community.

As the kids added their requests for what they wanted me to teach, I wondered what had kept me from asking sooner. The question was the briefest thought removed from being off-the-cuff or flippant. As I took note of everything they suggested, it became clear that what they wanted to learn and could have learned from their parents was the opportunity to grow, and gain the responsibilities that once marked the rites of passage into young adulthood.

Even though the kids had spent their entire lives in the permanent settlement that the kallunaits built, they had strong misgivings about what had been lost when they left the nomadic rituals of the tundra for settlement. Everyone was in favour of taking their chances on the tundra. Mary, the oldest, was just 15 and some of the others yet to enter their teens, but the opportunities and challenges of the tundra appealed to them. It may have merely been romance and nostalgia, but life in the village familiarized them too well with the anxieties and pain that made Mattiusi Epoo take his life, made Putulik sniff and made Mary explore the tightness of her coat sleeves around her neck. For whatever scarcity and hardship of the tundra would challenge them with, it appealed to them and held some hope for the future.

When we usually speak of “the struggle to survive” we attribute a degree of hardship or difficulty opposes us and makes life miserable or onerous when struggle is a blessing. Struggle has become an even greater requirement for our spiritual well-being because without it, we lack the sense of purpose that motivates, nourishes and sustains us. The move from a nomadic economy of hunting and gathering to the welfare cycle the Inuit have found themselves in has in part contributed to the suicides, substance addiction and family abuse that are today acknowledged with a shrug of resignation. Material abundance, without a goal to pursue in life, endangers the lives of Inuit more than the harshest of winters ever did.

In all likelihood, teachers before me had their own moments of idealism (or desperation) and struck upon the needs and desires of the students as I had that day. The noon bell rang and was ignored. We continued our discussion well into the lunch hour before I insisted they head home for lunch. On my way out, I caught Alasi in his office and I told him about the discussion that I had and the kids’ desire to learn how to build igloos.

I hoped that I would impress upon Alasi the kids’ need to learn their own culture and express my own wonder that the kids were not learning as much as they needed. When I got home, I suspected my words would go no further than Alasi. I recalled Danielle’s challenges trying have an igloo built for the school exchange the year before and thought of taking them out to try to teach them myself. I did not want to haggle over the costs of having the parents teach their kids. Furthermore, the conversation the kids and I just had was a significant one and proceeding with the regularly scheduled Math class in the afternoon rather than building on the discussion would have been disappointing. When we returned after our brief lunch, the conversation picked up where it left off and we continued to flesh out their needs and interests.

One of the television channels the village had, Television Northern Canada (TVNC), had coincidentally featured a National Film Board short film that showed the construction of an igloo two days earlier. The details of the construction were still relatively clear in my mind. An igloo is built from the inside, with little need to move around the outside of the building. You cut the blocks out from underfoot, creating a larger floor and going higher overhead with each block. The one thing I could not discern from the movie was the type of snow to seek, but perhaps the long winter had rendered most of the snow the right texture and consistency rather than the powdery or wet snow that would be less cooperative. I was willing to give it a shot, but I worried about the consequences of me teaching the kids to do it instead of their parents. Deep down, I wanted to fail rather than succeed, but I did not want our dialogue to result in nothing.

Fortunately, Alasi had taken my conversation to heart. A snowstorm raged the next day, providing a fresh layer of snow over the drier, older snow. The day after that, however, a beautiful blue sky provided a springlike feel that belied the -15° Celcius that prevailed. Just before lunchtime, Alasi let all of the teachers know that there were going to be a few adults building igloos near the school that afternoon. If the teachers wanted to bring their classes along to participate, they were encouraged to do so. 

In the afternoon, most of the kids joined in the activities. A few adult men did the main construction while the kids looked on and filled the cracks between the bricks with snow. There was not as much explanation or explicit instruction as I would have liked, but there may have been more learning going on than I was aware of. More importantly, connections were being reestablished as adults and children enjoyed each other’s company in the middle of these labours. I took pictures and stayed out of the way. After a while, my girls wandered back to the school. 

I would have liked to spend a bit more time watching the igloos go up, but I wanted to make sure the girls were okay. I straggled in a few minutes after they did and found them sitting quietly at their desks, with the lights off and the high sun of spring pouring in through the windows. I paused to take in the sight of seeing them each sitting quietly with a book. I switched the lights on so that they could read more easily, but Mary gestured for me to turn them back off. I took a seat at my desk and noticed they had the copies of The Princess Bride that I bought the previous Christmas. Mary even asked me the meaning of "scullery." Despite the uselessness of what I had to offer them - in this case, the esoteric vocabulary - they were meeting me halfway. 

In the days that followed, a lot of igloos that went up, including a cluster near my house, most of them built by Raymond's boys. There were a few nights when they glowed blue or orange with a light within and I was tempted to drop in on them. Ever hesitant about intruding or, at this point, putting myself in a difficult situation, I watched the glow from my kitchen window.

Two weeks later, Alasi called me into his office to inform me that the School Committee had decided not to renew my contract for a third year. It was hard not to take the news personally, but eventually I would acknowledge how burnt-out I was. Summer could have brought renewal and an appetite for the challenge of preparing Mary for graduation to a village further south, but I likely would have exhausted my reserves of energy early in the fall. It was best for me to move on.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Have Any of Our "Leaders" Heard of the Marshall Plan?

The martial drumbeat is growing louder and once again and the allies are rallying themselves to a cause that requires Western or NATO intervention in the Middle East. This time to bring a stop to the atrocities that have been committed by ISIS.  The script during the build up has sounded familiar to that prior to other attacks and it seems certain that there will be ultimately the familiar lines about needing boots on the ground to finish the task and put a stop to this [fill in the blank].

The script has been played out so many times that it is tempting to tune out and try to find some way to opt out of the Special Report updates on another unwinnable war.  If we recall the narratives of previous wars, air strikes and initiatives to send advisors to some troubled theatre ultimately lead to expanded involvement and a poor return on the investment and the high-tech toys that ultimately sow the seeds for future terrorist groups to, like a hydra, come back in a new variation and a level of virulence that is, if we trust those beating the war drums, is even worse then its predecessors. This iteration of the fight against terror as tired and cliched as its previous refrains is only going to ensure that the battle will have a future chapter far sooner than the politicians and generals promise this time around.

While a battle of much greater concern, the battle with Ebola that seems to show the death-spore ahead of the best efforts of humanitarians and other people who are on the ground there. While there are experimental drugs that are available to deliver to the parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and their neighbours afflicted by the outbreak there seems to be little impetus to respond to this threat that has arrived on Western shores and is likely to make a more significant arrival before it ends.

Time and time again politicians make decisions that only take into account the shortest term possible and just as tragically the voters do not demonstrate the patience or the generosity to allow their leaders to take a longer term view on matters that have profound consequences for -- to trot out another well-worn chestnut from the hustings -- our children's children. Politicians with an eye to getting elected and staying in office continue to flash one dimensional short term responses -- responses not solutions when faced with challenges that impact our communities or all humanity. This is not to suggest that a response to ISIS is inappropriate but that it needs to be more comprehensive and look to ways of addressing the root causes of terrorism.

The Marshall Plan is a long-standing template for a pre-emptive, thorough and effective response to ensuring that communities that could become the breeding grounds for a potential threat, in the case of the Marshall Plan, communism. A similar package of initiatives aimed at bringing prosperity and development in some small way would be a noble alternative to the litany of airstrikes, invasions and territorial influence that the West have initiated in the Middle East for longer than our lifetimes. If there is opposition or suspicion among leaders and the general population in the Middle East it would because the West has long had its eye on the territory and the resources of the area and have played their chess games and power struggling with their strategic goals in mind, with a peace that is entirely in their favour rather than in the best interests of the people of that region. There dearly, dearly needs to be a substantial change away from the quixotic adventures that the west continues to waste its resources on. If the model of the Marshall Plan does not convince you, think instead of Osama Bin Laden's ambition to bankrupt the American economy.  A Marshall Plan initiative would likely cost less than ongoing war and do more to advance prosperity and consequently deny terrorist recruiters of their anti-American, anti-Western sales pitch.