Unlearn and learn again

September 21, 2016

Unlearn and Learn again – Lessons from Central American Educators

by Janet Nicol

“Unlearn-and learn again.” This is the philosophy of Daysi Marquez and Esperanza Tasies, educators from Central America who delivered non-sexist and inclusive workshops to BCTF teachers this past spring.

“We have to unlearn, so young people have a new vision of the world,” says Marquez, a secondary chemistry teacher in Honduras.

“It’s hard to change institutional structures,” says Tasies, a sociology professor in Costa Rica, “but you can make changes in the classroom. You can change students’ attitudes. Research shows this.”

A popular teaching activity which Tasies and Marquez shared with BC teachers is called “My Grandmother Told Me.” Participants were asked to write about an unforgettable event in the life of their grandmother, or other female elder, including the year which the event occurred.

Forming a circle-by-date sequence with Tasies in the centre, participants shared their grandmother’s story, starting with the earliest year. After each telling, Tasies taped the participant’s text to a spiral-shaped form, indicating the date sequence, drawn on flip- chart paper on the floor.

The result was an oral and visual collection of stories depicting women’s survival, strength, and endurance. Many contained “hidden” histories and injustices about women’s work and social lives.

“We all face inequality,” Marquez observes. “Men as well as women share the responsibility to create equality.”

As for differences between women teachers in Canada and Central America, Tasies says when Canadian participants are asked “who are you?” they use words such as “feminist, professional, and fighter,” while teachers in Central America describe their identity as “caring, a listener, and looking after others.”

Regardless, Tasies believes people need to listen more effectively. “There is a saying,” Tasies says, “It is better to have a big ear rather than a big voice.“

Rote learning, not critical thinking, has been the typical educational approach in Honduras. “This creates a submissive population,” Marquez says. Marquez says teaching critical thinking, as embedded in the non-sexist and inclusive workshops, helps improve the quality of life for Honduran youth coping with gendered violence, widespread teen pregnancies, and the highest rate of HIV-Aids in Latin America.

Both women are strong supporters of public education and teacher unions. Privatization of schools and the weakening of teacher unions in their region-and in North America-is a concern. “The non-sexist and inclusive workshops help strengthen our union,” Marquez believes. “We are supported by our members so the union executive is more supportive too.”

The sharing of cultures went both ways. While giving a teacher workshop in Kamloops, Tasies says she learned more about the painful legacy of Canada’s residential school system when her hosts, David Komljenovic, president of the local teachers’ union, and Paula Naylor, a member of the BCTF International Solidarity Committee, escorted her to the Secwepemc Museum. Tasies viewed a First Nations sculpture depicting a hostile adult and a frightened child whose eyes are covered by an eagle’s wings. “This is so the child won’t see anything ugly,” Tasies explains.

Tasies and Marquez concluded their Canadian trip by attending a conference of the Tri-National Coalition in Defense of Public Education, held at the University of BC. Delegates from teacher unions in Canada, the United States, and Central America shared experiences and strategies to strengthen public education in the face of hostile government attacks. The hard-working dedication of diverse teacher-delegates provided an uplifting conclusion to Tasies and Marquez’s visit.

As both women concluded, “There is sisterhood and solidarity among Canadian teachers and us. This shows there are no borders among teachers.”

The non-sexist and inclusive pedagogy project is a result of a 15-year collaboration between Central American teacher unions and CoDevelopment Canada, a nongovernmental organization that the BCTF supports. 

For more information about the non-sexist and inclusive curriculum (in Spanish), go to pedagogianosexista.com.

Reprinted from BCTFTeacher magazine, September/November, 2016


A mural at COPEMH (Association of Secondary Teachers of Honduras).

BC history book reviews

August 9, 2016

by Janet Nicol

I review two books for BC History magazine, Fall 2016.  Here’s an excerpt from each:


Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. Edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paul Buhle. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016) $29.95

Conveying history through a blend of graphics and narrative—-also known as “comics”—-has the ability to bring a wider level of audience engagement to Canada’s past. This is certainly the aim of the Graphic History Collective, a group of writers and artists sharing a passion for untold histories of working people. Drawn to Change presents nine such stories, five of them are set wholly or partially in British Columbia.

Among them is the story of Bill Williamson.  He knew all about riots, strikes and worker struggles. His life story as a hobo, on-to-Ottawa trekker, Spanish Civil War veteran and photographer is a fascinating journey through the hardships and brutalities of several decades of the twentieth century. Born in Winnipeg, Williamson was well-travelled by 1935 when he helped organize relief camp workers in Vancouver. Thousands hoisted themselves on to trains heading for Ottawa, where they planned to bring their grievances to the Prime Minister. Williamson’s later story— along with other Canadians fighting fascism in Spain—is another fascinating tale. Williamson not only survived warfare, but also managed to live a long life. Photographs taken by him during the Spanish Civil War and housed in the National Archives of Canada, along with his letters and interviews, inform this riveting graphic biographical account.



The Native Voice: The Story
of How Maisie Hurley and Canada’s First Aboriginal Newspaper Changed a Nation. By Eric Jamieson. (Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2016) $24.95

The Native Voice was a unique newspaper founded in post-WW II Vancouver by Maisie Hurley—-at the behest of Haida elder Alfred Adams—-to advocate for aboriginal people. This monthly newspaper was the official organ of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia.  Articles written within its pages by First Nations activists became a powerful means of connecting to others. The NativVoice also offered a rare perspective
for Vancouver residents who would not have been exposed to aboriginal issues in the city’s mainstream press. In this study of the newspaper, popular historian Eric Jamieson entwines Hurley’s lively biography with that of several First Nations’ leaders and establishes a well-researched historical context for their political struggles.

For more information about BC History magazine, go to their website -http://www.bchistory.ca/british-columbia-history/

Canadian fiction reviews

August 9, 2016

by Janet Nicol

I review three Canadian novels in the latest issue of Maple Tree Literary Supplement #21, an on-line journal. Here are brief excerpts –


The Motorcyclist,
by George Elliott Clarke.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2016
288 pp; $16.99

George Elliott Clarke, an accomplished poet, playwright and essayist, turns his considerable talent to writing a novel offering a protagonist infrequently portrayed in Canadian literature. The Motorcyclist depicts a year in to the life of Carl Black, a young black man in post-war Halifax. Told with energetic and lyrical prose, the author, a Toronto-based writer born and raised in Windsor, Nova Scotia, was inspired by the motorcycle diary of his father. Clarke creates a character who is neither hero nor anti-hero, but rather one man attempting to negotiate his way within an environment that is limiting, laden with ‘British’ culture and potent with hostility. A ‘player’ in the dating world, Carl juggles dates with several females at a time as the novel progresses, aiming for conquest without entanglement. His pre-occupation with sexual gratification drives the plot, though not the novel’s ultimate message.

Thirteen Shells
by Nadia Bozak
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 2016
320 pp, $19.95

Thirteen Shells is a coming of age novel about Shell, the only child of bohemian parents living in a small community outside Toronto in the late seventies and eighties. This is Nadia Bozak’s third novel and “parts of this book are adapted from childhood memories,” she tells readers, but “it is fundamentally a work of fiction.”

Today I Learned It Was You
by Edward Riche
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi, 2016
280 pp $19.95

Out of Newfoundland comes delicious contemporary satire from one of its “home-grown” authors, Edward Riche. A versatile writer of stage and screen too, in this fourth novel, “Today I learned It Was You,” Riche plots the imagined happenings of people in St. John’s with a wit and wisdom we come to expect from Newfoundlanders. The reader is transported beyond the charming veneer of ‘candied colored’ houses rising from the city’s shoreline, to witness the goings-on of ‘real’ people living messy, chaotic lives.

For the full reviews go to -http://www.mtls.ca/issue21/fiction-and-nonfiction-reviews-janet-nicol/

Women bank workers benefit from recent court victory

July 20, 2016

by Janet Nicol

Scotiabank employees scored an important victory in a re-settlement of a class-action suit over unpaid overtime this March, impacting 1,600 workers—but also potentially thousands of women working in banks across Canada. It’s a story making quiet headlines on the business pages of Canada’s newspapers—but it’s reach on women’s working lives is far greater.

More details are available in the summer, 2016 issue of Herizons magazine.


Chronic Kidney Disease Stalks Sugar Cane Workers

July 15, 2016

13645336_10154209654834765_4968104014617483366_n 2

By Janet Nicol

Thousands of sugar cane employees in Central America are working themselves to death, cutting stocks of cane under a beating sun for long hours and earning piecemeal wages. Chronic Kidney Disease has taken the lives of more than 20,000 workers in the region. Most of those who have died are men between the ages of 20 and 40.

Roberto Valdivia worked for seven years in the sugarcane fields in Chichigalpa, along the northern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, before he was fired after contracting CKDnT. In an interview with Our Times magazine via Skype, the 34-year-old Valdivia says being unable to work has turned him into a labour activist.

The full interview with Valdivia is available in the summer 2016 issue of Our Times magazine, along with interviews with Ed Kashi, filmmaker  and Jason Glaser, co-founder of La Isla Foundation, an organization advocating for sugar cane workers.  (Cover photo and photos accompanying the article are by Ed Kashi.)

In the shadow of the lash – the case of William Squire

May 13, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

Vancouver, 1935

William Squire’s first night at Oakalla Prison Farm could not have been an easy one, even though his cellmates included 47 longshoremen, 20 of whom were married with children. The men had been complaining of rats and bad food to visiting family and co-workers.  Overcrowding was another problem, even acknowledged by the warden, Walter Owen.

Squire was assured his legal appeal was a union priority for three reasons: because of the severity of the sentence of three years in prison and five lashes, because the union was convinced of Squire’s innocence and “because his prosecution arose out of his labour activities.”

-excerpt from “In the Shadow the Lash,” to appear in the upcoming issue of BC History magazine, Summer 2016. Cover illustration by David Lester.


A Global First as Mozambique Becomes Landmine Free

April 2, 2016

by Janet Nicol

More than two decades after the end of a devastating civil war, Mozambique is now officially free of landmines. I report on how local residents, backed by Mozambican and foreign NGOs, did the job.

Check out the full article in the April-June, 2016 issue of Peace magazine.



April 1, 2016

by Janet Nicol

Vancouver and District Labour Council president Joey Hartman uncovers the hidden histories of BC women workers in a presentation to a Vancouver History Society gathering. I report on her stories and a follow-up interview, to learn more about the contribution of women to the BC labour force and the trade union movement, over many generations.

The article is part of Our Times magazine’s annual women’s issue, available April, 2016.


Soviet Princeton & Cold Case Vancouver

March 24, 2016


Soviet Princeton: Slim Evans and the 1932-33 Miners’ Strike, by
Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat, New Star Books, Vancouver, 2015

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Authors Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat were inspired to write this local history after discovering an old photograph and two songs about a Princeton-based coal mining strike in 1932-33. The couple, both folk singers and former teachers residing in Princeton, decided to explore further. They realized the depression-era labour dispute still stirred up emotions among town residents with long-time family roots. And so the couple avoided gathering oral histories, confining their research to public documents. “We suspect that there will be memories which will be dislodged when reading this book,” the authors explain in the preface,”and perhaps these memories will not be pleasant ones.”
The trade union strike that divided a town revolves as much around Vancouver-based labour activist Arthur “Slim” Evans as the people of Princeton.

For the full book review, check out BC History magazine, Spring 2016.


Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s most Baffling Unsolved Murders, Eve Lazarus Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2015

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Eve Lazarus, author of four books on Vancouver and Victoria’s past, was initially interested in the history of homes. Now this North Vancouver freelancer employs her accumulated research skills to examine unsolved murders. The result is her most compelling book to date.

“Cold Case Vancouver” provides 19 true crimes still baffling the police today, beginning with a case in 1944. Her final story, much to the readers’ relief, is a solved crime. Most victims are female and most perpetrators are assumed to be male. Every aspect of the cold cases are chilling, from the details about how the evil deed occurred to the fact the perpetrator got away with murder. Also woven in to the crime descriptions are the reactions of the victim’s family, police, media and members of the public. Cases unfolding over the decades up to the 1990s, give the reader a window into Vancouver residents’ attitudes and lifestyles. The author seamlessly moves from describing the past to providing contemporary perceptions of the crime by including interviews with experts.

For the full review, check out BC History magazine, Spring, 2016.

The $15 Minimum Wage Movement Rises Up

February 20, 2016

by Janet Nicol

The fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in B.C. is a fight for women’s rights, according to organizers of the campaign. Women make up the majority of those who perform low-wage work across Canada.

“These are not young people living in their parents’ basements,” Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Federation of Labour, said about minimum-wage earners. “These are parents, single mothers and new Canadians.”

Women make up 63 percent of workers on minimum wage in B.C. Last year, the federation launched its Fight for $15 campaign in partnership with local family-advocacy and anti-poverty groups. The coalition has held rallies and other events to raise public support for the cause. Campaign leaders met with the province’s Liberal Premier Christy Clark and Minnister of Labour Shirley Bond.

To read more about the battle to raise the minimum wage, check out the Winter 2016 issue of Herizons magazine. You can also visit http://herizons.ca for more Canadian women’s news and feminist views.