The Life and Art of Mary Filer – a book review

December 1, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

A pioneer in glass art, Mary Filer was born in Edmonton in 1920 and passed away earlier this year in Vancouver, aged 95. The subject of the ninth book in Mother Tongue’s invaluable “Unheralded Artists of British Columbia” series, Christina Johnson-Dean reveals Filer as a remarkable Canadian artist
whose glass sculptures were original, bold, and inspirational.

Johnson-Dean was given full access to Filer’s personal papers by the artist’s nephew, providing a crucial source for this rich visual and biographical account.

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The full review is published on line in BC Booklook/The Orbsby Review at –

#54 Breaking the glass ceiling

#Welcomerefugees campaign one year later: Syrian refugees settling in as Canadians

November 26, 2016

by Janet Nicol

Canada made history one year ago, offering 25,000 Syrian refugees hope and peace in a new country. The first group of refugees landed in December 2015, with the remainder arriving over the following few months in cities across Canada. Among them was the Al Shanabani family, government-assisted refugees (GARS), who landed in Vancouver. They quickly found a home, signed up for English language lessons and found daycare facilities for their two daughters.

Lending them a helping hand in their journey has been another Syrian refugee — Mohammed Alsaleh.

“I have been living on the front line for the last two years,” Alsaleh says, “first as a refugee and then helping refugees.”

Alsaleh was among the first wave of 200 Syrians who came to Canada two years ago. Since last December, he has been employed as a settlement worker at ISSofBC Welcome Centre in Vancouver.

“I am so lucky to be in a position in which I can help people resettle in this country,” Alsaleh says. “However, it is very challenging.”

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Mohammed Alsaleh has turned his own Syrian refugee journey into a career helping other refugees. Photo by Elton Hubner

The settlement journey

When Alsaleh first welcomed Nedal and Taghreed Al Shanabani in his office, he showed them a chart with a curved line. You will experience four stages, he told them — a honeymoon period, culture shock, adjustment and adaption.

“I make sure every family I work with knows about the curve,” Alsaleh says. “It’s normal. You need to make some adjustments to reach settlement. When people know this has been scientifically proven and everyone goes through this, they feel more comfortable. This gives motivation to adjust to settlement.”

For the Al Shanabanis, learning English has been the main goal. “The day-to-day language barrier is a challenge,” Nedal says. “I feel deaf as I hear words around me but don’t comprehend.”

Still, Canadians have made his family feel at home in many ways. “We have received an amazing welcome, by the government and at the public level.”

He is also grateful to his Canadian landlords, Sheldon and Eileen, and says Sheldon is assisting him with driving lessons.

When Al Shanabani lived in Syria, he was a farmer and a driver. “In time I would like to drive a truck or bus here,” he says.

Taghreed says she will also search for employment once she is more fluent in English. “I would love to work with children,” she says. She wants to make sure her daughters, Rimas, 3, and Reetaj, 1, have educational opportunities.

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The Al Shanabani family came to Canada as government-assisted refugees from Syria last year. Photo by Elton Hubner

Hoping for Canada

Originally from Daraa, Syria, the family endured President al-Assad’s military attacks when soldiers began employing tanks, ground artillery and fighter jets against civilians. They escaped to Jordan six months later, along with extended family members. “The [refugee] camps were horrible,” Nedal says. “We had some savings and were able to rent a house.” They registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency along with millions of other displaced Syrians. Unable to seek employment because of refugee status, the Al Shanabanis became dependent on others for financial assistance.

Two years later, they received a call from the United Nations. “We felt so happy,” Nedal says about the offer to immigrate to Canada. “There was hope for a future for us and our children.”

Alsaleh understands his clients’ feeling of hope. He was in his fourth year of studies to become a doctor at a university in Homs, Syria, when his education was interrupted by the civil war.

“I had been doing my best to be vocal against human rights violations in Syria and I was documenting what was happening, taking videos and putting them online,” he says. “This resulted in my imprisonment and my torture by the Syrian dictatorship of Assad. After being released, I fled the country.”

Alsaleh adds: “I lost all hope. I was out of Syria, losing everything, starting without my family who were left behind, my education and my friends.”

Then he got his own phone call from the United Nations with an offer to immigrate to Canada.

“That single phone call made a difference in my life,” Alsaleh says. “It gave me hope again.”

On Nov. 25, 2014, he left Lebanon.

“I entered the airport as a refugee, but walked out of the terminal in Vancouver as a permanent resident of Canada,” Alsaleh says.

“The first conversation I had in English was at the Starbucks near the Welcome Centre.” He started working more on his English and looked into volunteering opportunities.

He volunteered at the free clinic run by ISSofBC to assist people with income taxes. “I was helping greet clients, showing them around and making sure their income tax was done,” he says. Alsaleh had only been in Canada for three months and it felt good to “give back” so soon.

“By volunteering I was able to make friends, to build my own network, and overcome so many barriers, such as culture shock and loneliness,” he says.

“When I came in 2014, there wasn’t a lot of awareness [about the Syrian crisis],” he says. “When people knew more about the plight of the Syrian people — when the picture of little Alan Kurdi appeared in September of 2015 — this changed everything. This small sad moment, which is a shame that humanity will carry forever — a three-year-old who drowned in the sea — it is really amazing how this has changed everything.”

Supporting refugees

Alsaleh’s advocacy for refugees is unrelenting. This September he helped organize a conference for 60 Syrian youth, aged 15 to 25, at the Welcome Centre to “amplify their voices.”

“We wanted to have an open free space for youth to come and connect with each other, share experiences and share the good things about their transition here to Canada,” he explains.

“They brainstormed together to get their recommendations out there and to make sure the next wave of young refugees have a better experience coming to Canada.”

Alsaleh says their main concerns are housing, education and English language training. “Also they had concerns about their financial situation because the government-assisted refugees are provided with allowances equivalent to the welfare rate, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. There is a struggle on that front.”

He said he has only just paid back his own government loan for transportation to Canada and medical test costs. This debt is another concern voiced by participants.

Alsaleh understands firsthand the emotional trauma refugees have experienced.

“This is something that should be highlighted,” he says, “the mental aspect of the settlement movement and the fact that we are dealing with a population that is so vulnerable and who have exceptional experiences with war, with violence, with so many unimaginably bad things. It is a key component of our work in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) support for our clients. We provide one-on-one counselling for refugees within the first week of their arrival.”

Because it is a sensitive issue, ISSofBC calls the counselling a “wellbeing” meeting. “We make sure that refugees know in their first week here, there is support. Someone is there to listen to their needs and anxiety when they are ready.”

The war has been going on for five years with no end in sight, a painful realization for Syrians now living in Canada.

“Prince William was here in the Welcome Centre,” Alsaleh says, recalling the British royal couple’s visit to British Columbia this past September. “He met with a Syrian family, and I had the honour of being the interpreter. He asked the Syrian family about what was happening (in Syria) and the scale of destruction. They shared with him that it doesn’t look promising.” The Prince asked Alsaleh for his opinion, too. “I shared with him the same sentiment. That it is very complicated and getting worse.”

More hope offered

Looking forward, about 1,500 government-assisted refugees, including Syrians, are expected to arrive in B.C. by the end of this December, most settling in Metro Vancouver. The federal government is also in the process of accepting Yazidi refugees living in Iraq who have been targeted by ISIL militants. The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority who used to live mainly in northern Iraq.

“Canada has a tradition in helping refugees,” Alsaleh says. “This is something we have witnessed in the 1970s with the Ismailis and in the 1980s with the Vietnamese. It is happening now with the Syrians. It is history in the making. It is Canadians practising their amazing tradition of offering hope.”

When Alsaleh was younger, he dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I wanted to become an oncologist because I lost two cousins to cancer in high school,” he says. “Now I am doing something as rewarding — helping people start over in Canada. This balances everything for me.”

Re-published from Canadian Immigrant magazine, December 2016 issue and available on line at

http://canadianimmigrant.ca/immigrate/refugees/welcomerefugees-campaign-one-year-later-syrian-refugees-settling-in-as-canadians

“Not to be bought, Nor for sale,” The Trials of J.E. Bird

November 17, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

Joseph Edward Bird (1868-1948) gained a reputation as a radical lawyer after he established a law practice in Vancouver in 1902. Very few other city lawyers of his generation maintained a 36 year practise involving significant labour, civil libertarian and criminal cases. Bird is best known for his legal defence of 376 passengers from India aboard the Komagata Maru, blocked from landing in Canada on 23 May, 1914, a case few other lawyers would handle because of public hostility toward Asian immigration. Bird took the unpopular stand at the time because he was “a committed socialist and attacker of injustice,” his grandson Richard Bird told the Vancouver Sun newspaper many decades later.(1)

Bird also represented several trade unions, including organized coal miners in the 1913 Vancouver Island dispute and leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike. He exposed government corruption during a trial connected to the Janet Smith murder case and in another instance, freed a First Nations man from state execution after a successful appeal and re-trial. Yet Bird’s contributions in early BC have yet to be fully appreciated.(2) This article presents a wider perspective of Bird’s work as a progressive Vancouver lawyer by examining court cases which impacted on social class and racial issues in early British Columbia.

So begins a research article appearing in the Fall 2016 academic journal, Labour/Le Travail, available to read on line by subscription at –

http://www.lltjournal.ca/index.php/llt/article/view/5843

J. Edward Bird (1868-1948) was a Vancouver lawyer who represent the passengers on the Komagata Maru in 1914. Bird fought against the threat of his clients' eventual deportation, challenged Canada's highly-restrictive immigration laws and was a defender of civil rights. Credit: The Bird family

J. Edward Bird (1868-1948) was a Vancouver lawyer who represent the passengers on the Komagata Maru in 1914. Bird fought against the threat of his clients’ eventual deportation, challenged Canada’s highly-restrictive immigration laws and was a defender of civil rights. Credit: The Bird family

Bob Bouchette, Everyman’s Columnist

October 18, 2016

by Janet Mary Nicol

The year 1935 brought dramatic protests to Vancouver’s streets. Bob Bouchette was there in his role as “everyman,” a witness and a storyteller who saw both sides of the social class divide.

Bouchette was an experienced reporter and columnist with a light touch, despite inner demons. Using the tools of his craft — a reporter’s pen, notepad and typewriter — he depicted a young city, its inhabitants and the depression era, with humour, insight and feeling.

I write five stories, weaving in the words of Bob Bouchette from articles and columns published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper in 1935. The subjects range from the weather to the bloody Battle at Ballantyne Pier. This montage captures life in Vancouver at a time of economic and social crisis.

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Bob Bouchette at an aviary called the Bird’s Paradise, 1934.

Photo credit: Vancouver Archives.

 

 

The full article is available on line at BC Booklook. (Click on link.)  http://bcbooklook.com/2016/10/16/26-bob-bouchette-everymans-columnist/

Sexual Assault and the Law

October 15, 2016

Where Do We Go From Here?

by Janet Nicol

Since the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial last March, burning questions have arisen about the legal rights of women who experience sexual assault and violence.

The case touched off a renewed debate about how the courts treat sexual assault. Experts and activists are now calling for legal reforms, a shift in judicial and societal attitudes, and greater support for women’s crisis centres.

Fortunately, feminist lawyers and sexual assault experts are starting to map out what justice could look like if it were to give rape victims greater agency. In the upcoming issue of Herizons, I asked three experts—Vancouver Rape Relief ’s Lee Lakeman, YWCA Vancouver’s Lisa Rupert and law professor Janine Benedet for some ideas on how that could start to happen.

The full article is available in Herizons magazine, October, 2016

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Note: This article was inspired by a YWCA-sponsored event about the Ghomeshi verdict in Vancouver earlier this year. Seating was at full capacity and women (and men) of diverse ages expressed a keen interest in legal reform.

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

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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:

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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.

 

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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 –

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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.

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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.)

Full article now on line at

http://ourtimes.ca/Featured_Story/article_501.php