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

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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.


A Celtic Christmas

December 14, 2015

Exploring the Mystical Kyle of Tongue

by Janet Nicol

Along Scotland’s most northern coast is a charming Highland retreat overlooking a point of land jutting out like a tongue. Vistiors to the village, known as Tongue and its inlet, the Kyle of Tongue, can expect to explore spellbinding landscape.

So begins the story of a pilgramage to my paternal ancestors’ croft along the northern tip of the British Isles a decade ago. My encounters with the memorable landscape, flocks of sheep and a lone “Nicol” clanswoman are chronicled in the December, 2009 issue of Celtic Life magazine, published out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Here’s a short video (with thanks to the person who posted the clip anonymously on the internet) panning the landscape, where not just the Celts dwelled, but also for a time, Norsemen and Romans.

Hope in a new land: one Syrian refugee’s journey to Canada

December 2, 2015

by Janet Nicol


Eyad Sallat’s life took a dramatic turn in 2011. It was a turn that would eventually lead him from his homeland of Syria to Richmond, B.C., where he now lives with his wife, three sons and daughter, ages three to 13.

After the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt had fallen, Sallat’s country of Syria joined the democratic uprising known as the Arab Spring. It was a hopeful time, with a call for freedom and dignity among Muslims and Christians alike. Sallat became involved in a rebel campaign, volunteering as a media activist in the small northern city of Idlib where he lived with his wife and children.

President Bashar al-Assad, whom Sallat now refers to as a “butcher,” was determined to crush the rebels at any cost, he says. The peaceful uprising soon became a military conflict, with Islamist groups (ISIS and JaN) joining the fighting and several countries taking sides. (As it stands now, Iran, Russia and the Islamic group Hezbollah support the government forces, and the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on the side of the rebels.)
Sallat was harassed by government soldiers in the early months of the civil war. Realizing his family was at risk, he sold his small transportation business and travelled alone to Lebanon to find work, planning to bring his family later. While he was away, his family’s home was hit with a barrel bomb, a barrel-shaped metal container containing explosives, along with shrapnel, oil or chemicals.

“The bomb didn’t explode,” he explains with the assistance of translator Adel Tawakul, a family outreach worker at immigrant settlement agency SUCCESS, “but the chemicals from the bomb spilled out.” A fire was ignited and his family barely escaped their home. Sallat’s wife suffered severe burns to her feet. She was treated in a hospital in Aleppo, 59 kilometres away. His family then travelled to join him in Beirut, after a three-month separation.

“I knew I had a chance to work in Lebanon, unlike Turkey or Europe,” Sallat says. He drove a cab in the streets of Beirut and applied to the United Nations for resettlement in Canada through its operation centre. Most Syrian refugees coming to Canada come through the Beirut centre.

Coming to Canada

“I was attracted to Canada,” Sallat says. “It felt like my second country.” Finally in mid-2014, his application was approved, and his family travelled to Montreal. They didn’t stay in Quebec long though, deciding Canada’s milder West Coast weather would be a better environment because of his wife’s injuries. The family spent six weeks at Vancouver’s Welcome House and then moved to Richmond, where they now live.

His two eldest sons are enrolled in public school and Sallat is taking adult education classes. “I hope to get better in the English language,” he says, smiling slightly.

Sallat still believes in Syria’s future, despite the fact that 50 per cent of the country’s population has been displaced. “Syria is not a failed state — yet,” he says, “but the rulers of the world and their policies have failed.”

Crisis in Syria

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed to date and 11 million uprooted from their homes — four million of these displaced people leaving their country. But it was the heartbreaking photograph of a drowned boy lying on the shore of a Greek island this summer that was shared through social media that seemed to waken the world to Syria’s crisis. Of the 2,157 Syrians who have drowned trying to reach Europe, two-thirds were women and children.

“The free world has failed the Syrian people,” Sallat says. “The whole world has watched the massacres happen. The world is silent. Where is the conscience of the world?”

Peace talks continue, the latest in Vienna this October, involving the United States, Russia, Iran and more than a dozen other nations. The White Helmets, a volunteer medical group in Syria, are demanding a no-fly zone to stop the barrel bombing of civilians — bombs that have reportedly killed 6,500 civilians. Two United Nations resolutions have called for the Syrian government to stop barrel bombing and to stop the use of the chemical weapon, chlorine gas. Both resolutions have been ignored.

Was the uprising for freedom worth it?

“Nothing in the world is worth what has happened,” Sallat answers with intensity. “No, the Arab Spring is not worth killing children, women and men.”

Welcoming refugees

When the refugee crisis in Syria became critical, Canada’s doors were not wide open in the way they had been for other similar refugee crises like the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, which welcomed 60,000 refugees in 18 months.

Canada receives three categories of refugees: refugee claimants, government assisted refugees (GARs) and privately sponsored refugees (PSRs). GARs receive settlement services and income support for one year through the national humanitarian Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP). PSRs are provided settlement and financial support by their private sponsor.

Once a top destination for refugees, federal changes in laws in 2012 led to a significant drop in refugee claimants. In 2014, refugees accounted for nine per cent of overall immigration to Canada in comparison to 1980 when refugees accounted for 28 per cent.

The new Liberal government, however, is working to take in 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees before the end of the year.

There are 36 refugee reception centres across Canada that provide the initial transitional housing and first language resettlement services to all government assisted refugees. Immigrant services groups across the country are planning for an increased demand for housing, medical services, interpreter services in Arabic and Kurdish, and school enrolment. Many Syrian refugees may require trauma-focused support as well.

Chris Friesen, chair of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance, raised concerns about the settlement sector’s ability to handle this number of refugees in such a short amount of time, but said in a recent statement, “Preparations have begun in refugee reception centres across Canada in response to the Government of Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement plan. We are now on standby, putting in place significantly enhanced reception services to welcome an expedited increase of Syrian refugees.”

Hope for the future

As for Sallat, he continues to follow news reports about the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, watching Al-Jazeera television and other Middle-Eastern media for news. He still has extended family members in Syria, who have endured the civil war now for four-and-a-half years. Sallat communicates with these relatives through internet and social media. “They didn’t have a chance or ability to leave,” he says of his relatives still in the war zone.

For his immediate family, Sallat sees a positive future in Vancouver. “Canada is a beautiful country,” he says. “The people are very nice. We hope to do good things here and to pay Canada back for what it has done for us.”

Reprinted from Canadian Immigrant magazine, December, 2015
and on-line at – http://canadianimmigrant.ca/

Shirley Clements retires from teaching with hip hop energy

November 18, 2015

by Janet Nicol

Shirley Clements, a dance and physical education teacher at North Surrey Secondary school, was about to close the door on her 25-year teaching career when she prepared 40 students for Outbreak, an annual dance competition.

“I thought, ‘this time I’m going to dance,’” Clements says in an interview. She never dreamed more doors would open-including an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s television show with 12 of her top students.

“The experience on Ellen was surreal,” she says. “But then, my life has been full of serendipity.”

Clad in a red jacket with sequins and track pants, Clements and her students moved to Bruno Mar’s “Uptown Funk” in a fast-paced hip-hop break-dance routine. Clements’s energy was infectious. She even threw in a high kick and performed a double spin-on her head.

Surrey’s student dance competition, which now boasts more than 750 participants, was created 19 years ago by Clements, after she and other teachers successfully expanded the district’s program. Money from admission tickets has gone toward a $5000 scholarship as well as the purchase of “on loan” tap shoes for students.

Clements, who retires this October 31, teaches beginner, intermediate, and advanced dance courses, all electives. She also teaches an “elite” student group during “x” block.

“You can feel the electricity in the audience,” Clement says about the dance competition where she made her mark last January. Captured on video, one of her former students uploaded the clip to “Ellen Tube”-the official web site of Ellen DeGeneres.

“Students were coming up to me and saying, ‘did you know you are on Ellen Tube?’”, Clements says. The school principal approached her too. “He asked me if he could tweet it out.”

After thousands of hits, the video got Ellen’s attention and in June she invited Clements and twelve students to appear on her show. Clements says they practised all summer. Their hard work paid off when they travelled to Los Angeles in September and gave a great “repeat” performance on Ellen’s show.

“They are my love and they are part of my heart,” Clements told Ellen about her students. “They work their butts off and they show me love and respect, and they’re the nicest kids on the planet. I couldn’t ask for more wonderful students to be here today.”

The trip also included a visit to the Millennium dance studio, among other tourist destinations.

“I gave them an hour to shop in the mall on the final day,” Clements says. “My students are all shoe fanatics. They bought $180 shoes. They like to trade their shoes with each other too.”

Ellen presented Clements with a $10,000 cheque from Shutterfly. Clements says she plans to set up a dance studio for youth in San Pancho, Mexico, where she and her husband own a second home. She hopes the studio will also host cultural exchanges between local youth and students she’ll invite from Canada.

Dancing since she was a child, Clements trained in ballet and “character” dancing-everything from flamingo to jazz. She keeps in shape by dancing three hours a day, often alongside students as she shows them steps. Clements also choreographs her students’ routines but says she is open to students’ ideas.

I collaborate with my students,” she says. “The kids will say, ‘let’s try this.’”

Students also help choose the music. In the rap world of harsh street slang, Clements tries to be vigilant, editing out inappropriate words. “There’s no swear words allowed in the music at the school competitions,” Clements says. “It’s a family affair.”

Clements will retire with the assurance that her dance courses will continue as a younger teacher takes her place. She appreciates the value of the program in public schools, providing a creative outlet for youth. “There are students who can’t take dance outside of school,” she also observes. “It’s expensive.”

Some of her former students have become dance teachers, providing another satisfying legacy. Her students have also used their acquired talent to entertain on board cruise ships, in music videos, and at dance competitions, including the popular TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Though Clements has two grown children, her students are like family too-and she will miss them. “They call me Nana C,” Clements says. “I love the kids.”

Reprinted from BC Teacher magazine, November-December 2015 issue.

Check out the video of Shirley dancing with her students –


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