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 –

Amor de Cosmos & history of Jervis Inlet – book reviews

November 15, 2015


The De Cosmos Enigma, by Gordon Hawkins. Ronsdale Press, Vancouver, 2015. $17.95 (paperback) 151 pages

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Amor De Cosmos, an early British Columbia politician, is the subject of an intriguing biography by Gordon Hawkins. Building on an earlier work by George Woodcock, the author has literally re-traced De Cosmos’ steps, travelling from Nova Scotia to California as well as digging in to the archives in Victoria, BC. Despite this extensive research, Hawkins is unable to fully unlock all the complexities of De Cosmos’ personality—thus the book’s title. Still, it is a portrait which helps us understand both the roots of our province and one man’s contributions.

Check out the full review in BC History, Winter, 2015.


The Royal Fjord: Memories of Jervis Inlet, by Ray Phillips, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC, 2015. $22.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Jervis Inlet, a breathtaking fjord cutting 60 kilometres deep into the Coast Mountains north of Vancouver, is the subject of a collection of histories by Ray Phillips. Conversational in writing style, the author describes interesting people who populated the area over the past century, including original homesteaders and their descendants. The reader learns of ordinary men who worked the land as loggers, fishers, miners, hunters and much later, tourist resort owners. Women ventured into these wilds too, supporting their husband’s work and raising children in isolated communities up and down the jagged coastline and on small islands.

Check out the full review in BC History, winter 2015 issue.

Book reviews – A novel, a memoir, love letters and a history mystery

October 9, 2015

Only a website away are four books I have reviewed  for Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Issue #20.  The reviews are:

Where the nights are twice as long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets, 1883-2014 edited by David Eso and Jeanette Lynes
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2015, 432 pp, $22.95


Will Starling (a novel)
by Ian Weir. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2014, 483 pp, $32.95

….as well as a memoir about growing up Jewish in South Africa –

White Schooldays: Coming-of-Age In Apartheid South Africa
by Isme Bennie. South Carolina, USA: CreateSpace, 2014 166 pp, $26.00

and Komar’s third “history mystery”  –

The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin, Jr.
by Debra Komar, Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2015 288 pages, $19.95

All reviews available at  –


TRC Recommendations

October 2, 2015

Implement Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Recommendations


by Janet Nicol

I provide a guide to action for people who wish to learn more, or to participate more fully, in the process of reconciliation with Canada’s aboriginal peoples in the October-December 2015 issue of Peace magazine. Full article on line at


Also check out a lesson plan I developed, posted at the BC Teachers’ Federation site “TeachBC” on teaching senior high school students and adults about the TRC report.  The link is at – https://teachbcdb.bctf.ca/list?q=name%3A%22Janet+Mary+Nicol%22&p=1&ps=



Teaching Democracy though a social justice lens

September 12, 2015

by Janet Nicol

Following attendance at the “BC Teacher Institute for Parliamentary Democracy” program in Victoria last year, I wrote an article about the speakers, events and interaction with other participating BC teachers.

As a result of one workshop, a few of us set up a Facebook page promoting registration of BC youth at age 16 so they are “voter ready” at 18. https://www.facebook.com/voteregistryat16

The article is available on line at the BC Teachers’ Federation website –




Well bred raspberries

August 5, 2015

by Janet Nicol

British Columbia raspberries are grown the world around but our west coast climate means our farmers grow some of the best. In fact, BC produces 80 percent of all raspberries in Canada, so it only seems right to eat locally and learn everything there is to know about this luscious cousin of the strawberry.

So begins an article on everything you want to know about raspberries, based on interviews with Alf Krause of Krause Berry Farm in Langley and Tom Baumann, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley involved in a highly successful fruit breeding program.

The full story is available in Edible Vancouver magazine, high summer 2015 issue and on line at –



‘Like a bolt from the blue’ – Rubinowitz in early Vancouver

July 31, 2015

by Janet Mary Nicol

“Like a bolt from the blue, and to my profound astonishment, I was on Tuesday afternoon set upon by a number of special constables and arrested,” Israel Rubinowitz wrote from his prison cell in Nanaimo.

It was autumn 1913 when the budding defence lawyer made a plea for his release, penning a letter to Judge Frederick Howay in the midst of a coal miners’ strike on Vancouver Island. Though a Conservative in politics, Rubinowitz offered a passionate, occasionally radical, perspective in British Columbian courtrooms. He grew up in Vancouver, studied at McGill University in Montreal and attended Oxford University in England on a Rhodes scholarship in 1905. He returned to Vancouver and had only practised law for a short time when he found himself in Nanaimo – as both counsel and accused.

The story of Rubinowitz’ tragically short life and dynamic legal work is available in the latest issue of The Jewish Independent (Vancouver) and will appear in full in the historical journal, “The Scribe” at a later date.

Link to story at – http://www.jewishindependent.ca/like-a-bolt-from-the-blue/


Above is a photograph of the Dominion Hotel in Vancouver’s Gastown district–past and present. Rubinowitz’ father owned a store at the corner on the main floor for several years and this is where the young Rubinowitz worked as a clerk and accountant while attending school.

Violence Against Aboriginal Women

July 9, 2015

‘A Human Rights Crisis’

by Janet Nicol

Connie Greyeyes travels to Ottawa every year, bringing public attention to the missing and murdered aboriginal women in the Peace region of northern British Columbia. And each year, when Greyeyes unfurls a banner on Parliament Hill, the list of victims’ names grows longer.

“This drew our attention,” says Jackie Hansen, an Amnesty International staff member. “We thought, ‘what’s going on?’”

Amnesty has long declared the high level of violence experienced by aboriginal women in Canada a “human rights crisis.” Last year, a national report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found 1,186 aboriginal women had gone missing or been murdered in the past 30 years.

In this article, I interview Connie Greyeyes and Jackie Hansen about this urgent issue.
Available in Peace magazine, July-September 2015 issue and will appear on line soon at




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