Archive for July, 2008

Making visible BC’s most vulnerable children

July 31, 2008

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond leads the Way

by Janet Nicol

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond bravely enters a vortex where “crisis meets opportunity” as she advocates for 32,000 BC children in government care, half of whom are Aboriginal. She is already making a difference one year into her job as British Columbia’s first Representative for Children and Youth—if only by clearing our vision.

Turpel-Lafond brings to her role of protecting society’s most vulnerable, the experience of growing up on a Manitoba First Nations reserve, attaining four university degrees, and working and teaching in the legal world. She is also a wife and mother of four children.

So when Turpel-Lafond took a five-year leave from her duties as a judge in Saskatchewan last November, she didn’t lose any time getting started. In April, she instigated a “you have a voice” campaign directed toward children in government care, after opening offices in Victoria, Vancouver, and Prince George. Already, her team has received more than 700 responses. Clearly Turpel-Lafond is listening.

But teachers aren’t getting her ear when it comes to standardized testing.

“We need to know how students are doing,” Turpel-Lafond said in an interview following a recent talk to the University Women’s Club in Vancouver.

“Thirty percent of kids in care and 20% of all Aboriginal children are not being tested,” she said. “Testing is one part of looking at the system. My goal is to support efforts to nurture the learning spirit of children but also to know how they are doing.”

Turpel-Lafond acknowledges FSA testing of Grades 4 and 7 children may not be the most accurate measurement of certain skills.

“However, other instruments like the Early Development Instrument (EDI) are more robust,” she said. “When I looked at 32,000 children in care I noted increasing gaps from Kindergarten to Grade 12 for vulnerable children. The EDI was probably the most predictive of all instruments.”

“You need to measure,” she insisted in spite of educators’ opposing position. “When a large segment of kids with vulnerabilities are in the education system, I need to look closely to see what is happening to support them.”

Making visible, monitoring, and accountability are Turpel-Lafond’s key goals for children and youth as she talks to people around the province and examines the hard statistical data crossing her desk. And this was her repeated message to an audience of about 100 in Vancouver, many retired professional women.

“It is the best of times and the worst of times,” Turpel-Lafond told the gathering. “While the province’s economy is booming,” she said, “more children live in poverty here than in any other province in Canada.”

“It surprised me too,” she confessed in reaction to the audible gasps among audience members. But statistics show 15.2% of children in BC live below the poverty line.

The federal government’s recent $60 billion in tax cuts would be better spent on fighting child poverty, she added.

She observed the system tends to “serve adults’ needs but not children’s.” In her experience as a court judge, she said “you can mediate a child’s case without actually talking to the child.”

“The voice of the child has to be heard,” Turpel-Lafond said. “We are here to serve you.”

Her assumptions continue to be challenged when she talks with children and youth in BC.

Turpel-Lafond said her experience has shown many children come from environments that are “hectic and chaotic” and where they may have disabilities such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. A history of “benign neglect” by government, she says, has combined with successive generations of children impacted by poverty, scars from residential schools, and families that have broken down. The government must attend to these issues with “prudent parenting” she suggested and with “vigilance and care” to end the abuse and maltreatment of children and youth.

“It is hard to get people to be in this field,” she acknowledged. “It’s too traumatic. …But we have a great opportunity to improve children’s outcomes.”

Turpel-Lafond recently delivered a report on educational needs, listing nine recommendations.

One recommendation asked that government care of some youths continue into adulthood. “We have to change the lens,” she told the Vancouver audience. “Don’t shut off these people when they reach 19.” She warned of an “impact on the lives of their children” if we don’t continue assisting.

Turpel-Lafond also said it’s a “myth” that children in government care have an advocate in the educational system. Indeed, the independent officer’s to-do list seems endless.

So how are children in care doing at school?

Turpel-Lafond said of the 32,000 students in government care attending schools in 1997 to 2005, only 20% completed Grade 12 in contrast to 80% of the rest of the student population in BC.

“And only a few of the 20% who finished Grade 12 have academic requirements to continue their education,” Turpel-Lafond said.

She said the problems don’t surface in Grades 9 and 10 as some people think, but in the pre-school years.

“Fifty percent are not ready to learn when they enter Kindergarten,” Turpel-Lafond said. “From Kindergarten to Grade 4, the more vulnerable children are not meeting the standard.”

“There are accumulative deficits over this period of time.”

During the post-talk interview, Turpel-Lafond, reiterated the importance of the school’s role in assisting more students to graduate.

“The secretary, nurse, teacher, room parent–everyone plays a role. I have so much respect and admiration for people who work to improve the system. My husband was one of the first generation of First Nations teachers and in our professional lives we have worked closely with educators. BC has developed innovative programs and supports for children, which I am currently studying. However, the reality is that only 20% of kids in care graduate. So much more has to be done.”

As for overall graduation levels among First Nations students, Turpel-Lafond said, “I do wonder for the Aboriginal students in BC, who are on the whole, only graduating at 47%, how we can break that plateau? Students continually identify racism as a barrier and I am looking into that as well.”

Turpel-Lafond’s findings show more males than females are in government care and face more obstacles, such as special needs and high drop-out rates.

Why is this?

“That is something I too am asking,” she replied. “The modality of ‘treating’ their mental health and developmental delays with cerebral stimulants might be one explanation.”

And what do educators need to do to help?

“Support early childhood education programs for vulnerable children, inclusion in schools, know the children,” she answers. “In many respects keep doing what they’ve been doing but ramp-up efforts on the vulnerable kids so that we all ensure their education is a primary priority.”

If Turpel-Lafond could wave her magic wand to influence our educational system, she would have plenty of stardust to sprinkle.

“Collaborate across roles and with governments and communities to make it the best system. Keep excellence in mind and ensure every child is supported,” she advised educators.

“My personal goal is to see the lives of vulnerable children improved and a coherent plan for children in British Columbia that includes education. Much good work happens already but we need to redouble our efforts for vulnerable children and we need to close the gaps through what we know works at the level of the child. I’m not an expert in education but like many I’ve met in BC, I know that education is the key to a better future for vulnerable children—and even more importantly, a better future for their children.”

Janet Nicol is a Vancouver secondary teacher.

Reprinted from BC Teacher, 2007.

Calling 411

July 30, 2008

First founded in 1972 as a small seniors drop-in, the 411 Seniors Centre downtown has become Vancouver’s largest seniors centre and a hotbed of activity and activism.

Vancouver Courier, April 18, 2008  Cover story

by Janet Nicol

On a recent cold morning, two elderly women dash into the lobby of the 411 Seniors Centre. In an alcove by the entrance of the four-storey heritage building at Dunsmuir and Homer, an elderly man sorts through racks of clothing. Sitting by the cash register in the adjacent gift shop, a white-haired woman sings along to a Scottish tune on the radio. Three lone men sit at separate tables in the spacious cafeteria by the lobby elevators sipping on cups of coffee.

The two women hurry by the desk man.

“We are the Raging Grannies,” one says. He nods as they head for the elevator to the third-floor sewing room.

The Grannies, whose local numbers fluctuate, meet at 411 Seniors regularly to rehearse protest songs to perform at political rallies. They pay $200 a year to rent the room and consider the money well spent, according to their leader Pat Grinsteed.

Once the home of Vancouver’s earliest trade union activity, the old “labour temple” at 411 Dunsmuir is the largest seniors centre in Vancouver. Award-winning and influential, it’s become the city’s hotbed of seniors’ activity and activism since it was founded as a small gathering place in 1972. Many seniors come for the cheap lunches and breakfasts, while others depend on its services, such as free medical help, while others participate in choirs, exercise courses, language lessons and other activities. And some, like the Grannies, use the centre to help to stir things up.

On the third floor, a group of women in a partitioned room slowly stretch on a linoleum floor to the commands of an aerobics instructor. Two pairs of elderly Chinese-Canadian women play ping pong and have a lively talk in Mandarin at tables in an open area. An older gentleman surfs the Internet for free at one of several computers in the hallway.

In the sewing room, the Raging Grannies welcome a visitor. “This is Robyn, Lesia, Darlene, and Barb,” says Grinsteed.

Elegantly dressed and dignified in manner, these older women are legendary for camping it up at protest rallies dressed in shawls and flower-strewn floppy hats. The first chapter of Raging Grannies was formed in Victoria in 1986, and similar groups soon sprung up across Canada and around the world.

As the Grannies prepare for rehearsal, they are asked about urgent issues for seniors. Grinsteed suggests a song instead of a speech. The group selects “Homeless in Winter,” which is sung to the tune of the old holiday standard, “Let It Snow.”

“It is scary and very humbling

To beg when your stomach’s rumbling

And the stores in the Food Bank are low

Where to go? Where to go?

Where to go?”

After the performance, the Grannies discuss protesting at the gates of a Richmond firm, which before the federal government stepped in to kill the deal, was selling its space division to an American corporation manufacturing land mines and cluster bombs.

Such planning is not unusual for the centre. The union builders of 411 Dunsmuir would be pleased that social activism continues almost a century later within these walls.

It takes a small army of volunteers to make 411 Seniors work. They teach classes, run programs, lead projects, work in the centre’s shop and cafeteria and provide help to fellow seniors. Last year more than 2,000 people came to the centre to have their income tax completed for free by volunteers.

The 411 Seniors and centres like it have a large constituency to cater to. More than 70,000 residents in Vancouver are 65 years old and over, comprising 13 per cent of the city’s population. A growing number are 85 years of age and older. Of the 20,000 seniors who live alone, more than half are female. Many speak a first language other than English.

And living as a senior in Vancouver can be tough. Joyce Jones, president of the 411 Seniors volunteer board, notes the small size of the federal pension cheque for seniors is a top concern.

“It is not keeping up with the cost of living–right across Canada,” she says. “Some seniors are living pension cheque to pension cheque… Those hurting the most have no private pension, and most are women.”

The average income for a senior living in the Lower Mainland is only $16,000.

These stark facts explain why so many seniors come to 411 Seniors to take advantage of the free dental screening clinic and have their blood pressure checked and foot problems examined by medical professionals. Others enjoy the hot breakfasts and lunches served for $3 every day except Sunday in the main floor cafeteria.

To join the 411 Seniors Centre, members must be 55 years old and over and pay a yearly $10 fee. The centre has 1,400 members.

John Collins is one of those volunteers, and he loves it.

“I teach seniors English every Tuesday and Thursday,” Collins says, plunking himself down in a couch as volunteers busily prepare for a multicultural celebration involving 200 members that day.

Trays of samosas are already on tables, with more food on the way.

Volunteers set up information displays by the elevators, and in a large partitioned room where the performances will occur, the centre’s 48-member multicultural choir rehearses.

A West End resident, Collins has taught at 411 Seniors as a volunteer for seven years and also volunteers at Barclay Manor. He says many immigrants who come to Canada and raise families eventually bring their aging parents over. Once here, these seniors manage daily life in Vancouver without speaking English, but as time goes by they want to learn the language of their new country. Their motivation is simple. “Their grandchildren don’t want to talk the old people’s language,” Collins says.

Collins came to Canada from England when he was 24, living first in Saskatchewan and then teaching high school in the Lower Mainland.

He now enjoys teaching his peers and admires them for their dedication. Learning a new language for people in their 60s and 70s is not easy. “[They] want to be here. They are very pleasant to teach,” he says. When he isn’t volunteering, Collins enjoys a game of chess, cards or snooker at the centre.

Collins’ 14 ESL students will lead the singing of “O Canada” at the upcoming multicultural function, following an opening prayer by a First Nations representative.

He calls over their piano accompanist, Ester Gumboc, playing hooky from choir rehearsal. The small and wiry Gumboc takes a different class every day of the week, from tai chi to Spanish lessons. She is also a great-grandmother.

She is attracted to 411 Seniors by the central location and affordable programs.

“I love the centre,” Gumboc says. “This is a friendly place.”

Gumboc came to Canada from the Philippines 38 years ago. She isn’t worried about how Vancouver has changed since she first arrived.

“People realized this was a nice city and started coming here after Expo,” she says, before rejoining the choir practice. “We should have another Expo.”

The choir, started by Bob Poutt, is an example of how seniors can bring their experience to the centre to create new opportunities.

Poutt, a retired Vancouver music therapist and UBC professor in his 70s, joined the centre two years ago when his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, was placed in a nursing home. He found the members at 411 Seniors were interested in creating music. Drawing on his background, he offered to volunteer as choir master.

“We started with 10 people,” he remembers.

Today the 411 Multicultural Choir has members with origins from 20 countries. They range in age from 55 to 94. They’ve sung in nursing homes and hospitals and even performed at a memorial for a choir member’s spouse.

Poutt says many friendships are made but members also join because “music is a part of all of us.”

Dressed in a three piece suit and calmly seated on a chair near the elevator, Shams Jilani prepares to speak later that day at the celebration after the opening prayer and national anthem.

The chair of the centre’s multicultural committee and a board member for nine years, he will be joined by visiting dignitaries including Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre and Vision Vancouver Coun. George Chow.

Jilani has been a member and volunteer at 411 Seniors for 14 years.

“I was asked to join the centre as a counsellor,” says Jilani, who lives in Richmond and proudly notes he has 12 grandchildren. He’s helped seniors with abuse, family problems and landlords during his time at the centre. He also helps prepare wills and notarizes papers.

Jilani is perfectly suited to be a 411 Seniors volunteer.

He was a social worker in India and speaks seven Indian dialects and Arabic. He says 411’s focus on multiculturalism and multicultural services sets it apart from other senior centres, and he credits its success to its staff and volunteers.

Seniors not only run the solid, old building at 411 Dunsmuir–they own it. And it’s a piece of Vancouver history.

The provincial government gave 411 Dunsmuir to the centre more than two years ago. Renovations are in the works, according to the centre’s board president Joyce Jones. The planning involved has taken up much of the 12-member board’s time and will require a substantial financial commitment. The fourth floor is rented out as a significant source of revenue and plans are to rent out two retail stores on the main floor.

Jones believes in the work of the centre. She has been a strong advocate for seniors for years, helped establish the B.C. Seniors Network and has been honoured with civic awards for her work. Underpinning her work is her message that seniors must not be forgotten in Vancouver’s rapidly changing mosaic. She should know: she’s also a senior.

“Older citizens bring a lot to communities,” she says in a telephone interview. “It’s not just ‘poor me.’ We have a wealth of history and information.”

The history of the 411 Dunsmuir building began when the city’s building trades and labour council erected the square, brown building in 1912. It was known then as the Labour Temple, and its ornamental twin Roman columns at the entrance and finely crafted woodwork above the front doors remain to this day.

Many years later, the building was bought by the provincial government. A group of seniors decided to rent out part of the building for a drop-in centre in 1972.

When it first opened 36 years ago, it was a rest and relaxation spot, according to Carol Lloyd, the centre’s former marketing and administrative co-coordinator who left the centre for a new job shortly before this story went to print. (She calls her time at 411 Seniors a very happy one.) “We just had a room for seniors to drop in and have soup and salad,” she says.

The centre expanded as it received more funding, and today employs 10 staff. It also became the largest seniors centre in Vancouver and offers the broadest range of seniors programs and initiatives in the city. Seniors arrive by bus and HandyDart from across the Lower Mainland to patronize its services. Fifteen per cent of its roughly $700,000 annual budget now comes from government sources. The rest is from foundations, corporations and individual donors.

The centre provides a base for seniors activism, such as the Raging Grannies. It’s also home to a chapter of Women Elders are Active, a group lobbying for an increase in the federal seniors pension. Homelessness, and seniors squeezed out by the rising cost of housing, are key concerns for centre members. “In my own experience, I have seen seniors on the street. There isn’t enough low-cost housing,” says Jones.

She believes the centre may be the first–and only–seniors centre catering to elders who are lesbian, gay, transgendered or bisexual. “We are finding these people isolated and not getting access to services,” she says.

The centre struck a LGTB committee in 2003. The committee sponsors a cinema series and participates in annual gay Pride celebrations.

The centre’s advocacy work is done free. Twenty volunteer counsellors, most of them seniors, work four-hour shifts throughout the week. Prepped by a 12-week training course, they help fellow seniors break through government red tape to access pensions, health care, transit discounts and other services. Their help is offered on week days at no charge. Problems with limited mobility are accommodated–the counsellors will even visit home-bound seniors.

The centre’s work has not gone unnoticed. It won a Cultural Harmony Award from the city in 2003 and a Community Spirit Award from United Way in 2004. The board’s impressive alumni includes Tom Alsbury, former mayor of Vancouver, and former MLAs Fred Sharp and Daisy Webster.

The centre advertises its services through a regular newsletter called News and Views, a website ( and community newspapers. Members also produce a one-hour radio show every Thursday at 2 p.m. on Co-op Radio (102.7 FM).

But word of mouth probably lets most seniors know what’s going on at 411 Seniors–and not just in English.

What makes 411 Seniors effective?

“This is a friendly place,” says Amy Chen after choir practice has ended. Her husband lingers by the door as most of the choir hurries out to enjoy a short break before the multicultural celebrations begin. “In some seniors’ centres, people are in small groups. Here, everyone mixes.”

Chen says the centre made a huge difference in her experience as an immigrant.

“When I came to Canada three years ago I was living in a hotel downtown,” Chen says. “I took a yoga class here and the teacher told us to do laughter yoga.”

Her instructor told students to laugh for three minutes at a time. It was the right medicine for Chen. She left the hotel and lives in Burnaby, commuting from her home there to sing in the centre’s choir and participate in the centre’s walking group. She took English lessons with John Collins.

Perhaps buoyed by the centre, Chen isn’t worried about safety or the changes going on in Vancouver.

“Canadians are easygoing. It’s still a safe city,” she says.

Mary Anderson has also stayed behind after choir to praise the centre’s work. She commutes from New Westminster by SkyTrain because 411 Seniors provides an exceptionally friendly atmosphere. “There’s lots of fun things to do here,” she says. “And the nicest people.”

Anderson takes dance lessons and enjoys the fashion shows. Every Monday a tailor is available on the premises to do alterations at a reasonable price, she says.

Anderson contrasts the help provided by 411 Seniors with provincial government policy toward seniors. She can’t get a yearly seniors bus pass, she says, because she doesn’t qualify according to the government’s means test.

“I’m just on the edge,” she says, adding. “All seniors in Alberta get these passes.”

Back by the elevators, volunteer Betty Porteous wears a name tag to indicate she is helping out with the multicultural celebration. A resident in a False Creek housing co-op, she comes with her neighbours to the centre. It’s become a key component of their lives.

“It’s a great location, a great building. Everyone is very nice,” says Porteous, who’s held a regular shift in the second-hand gift shop for seven years.

Porteous came from Scotland 51 years ago and is philosophical about the city’s growth. She loves Vancouver, but acknowledges that change will occur. And that with change inevitably comes problems. “Most people I know are concerned for the homeless,” she says. “And there’s the working poor who are being overrun in the Downtown Eastside.”

Porteous notes seniors are among the poor, which makes the work of 411 Seniors all the more important to its volunteers and staff.


Beauty from the inside out

July 25, 2008

by Janet Nicol

 “Someday we’ll find a way.”

These are the hopeful lyrics from an Iranian-born songwriter,

social activist and beauty queen who has dedicated her gifts to

helping others.


“This is what I have been born to do,” Nazanin Afshin-Jam says in an

interview at a coffee shop near her Yaletown condo. “We all have

the capacity to make change.”


Afshin-Jam, who gained widespread recognition when she led a

successful campaign to free imprisoned Nazanin Fatehi more than

a year ago, admits her passion to advocate for others is motivated in

part by her and her family’s experience as refugees to Canada.


“I’m sure my family’s experience affected me subconsciously

on many levels,” says Afshin-Jam, who has released a CD

called Someday, on which she sings in English,

French and Persian on humanitarian themes.


She was just a child when her parents settled in Vancouver in 1980,

fleeing persecution after the Iranian revolution.


“We had to start from scratch,” Afshin-Jam remembers.


“The lucky ones got out,” she adds. “My heart bleeds for those left



Her compassion and activism was recently recognized by the Canadian

Race Relations Foundation, which appointed her to its board

of directors this February. Afshin- Jam had led months of petitioning,

lobbying and fundraising to help Fatehi, a teen condemned to death

in Tehran for knifing a man who tried to rape her and her niece.


Fatehi was released in January 2007 and now hopes to become a

lawyer so she can help other women. “This is her dream,” says Afshin-

Jam, who still maintains the campaign’s website (,

fundraising for Fatehi’s education and using it as a platform to advocate

against child executions.


Afshin-Jam was motivated to raise awareness on various global issues

like the landmine crisis while studying international relations

and political science at University. Looking for a of British Columbia

bigger platform from which to speak from, she signed up for the Miss

World contest.


“I realized I could use beauty with a purpose,” she says, “and use my

title to get the media’s attention.”


Afshin-Jam’s intention became reality when she was crowned Miss

World Canada in 2003 and first runner up in the Miss World pageant.


Now as a board member of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation,

Afshin-Jam wants to visit high schools and talk to the counsellors

about youth and racism. “I want to see what’s going on.”


While praising Canada for its tolerance and freedoms, she says, “we

still have a long way to go.”


Yet she also thinks the struggles that immigrants and refugees face

like racism make you stronger. “You have a leg up over peers who haven’t

had these experiences and aren’t as motivated.”


That’s certainly true if Afshin-Jam’s example is anything to go by.


Reprinted from The Canadian Immigrant, 2008.



Won Alexander Cumyow – his life and times

July 25, 2008

alex Won Alexander Cumyow – BC’s first Chinese-born Canadian.   His  remarkable life story was published in the first newsletter of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC newsletter.  I have revised the article and it is now available at the on-line Ormsby Review.  (See link in my December 2016 blog entry.)


Mongolia’s Purge Museum

July 21, 2008

by Janet Nicol

A  memorial museum in Mongolia attempt to redress the violent crimes of the past and inform the outsider of the dark history of a country long hidden in the shadows of its neighbor, the Soviet Union and China.

The museum is established in a two-storey wooden frame house in the downtown and opened to the public in 1996. On each of the four walls of the building’s main room are written the names of more than 25,000 Mongolian citizens executed by the state. These names record some of the massive number of state executions committed under the influence of the Soviet Union during under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.

September 10 is a “remembrance day” for the victims of political purges in the 1930s. This opportunity to confront a painful period in their history arose soon after the Soviet Union ended its domination in 1990. Mongolians are traditionally nomadic people, now in transition from a communist to democratic and capitalist system, and it is the scars of the Soviets’ 69 years of control that lingers in their memories.

Remembrance Day brings hundreds of local citizens to the main public square of Ulan Bator for a candlelight vigil. The government declared this day “official” in 1996, but people have gathered informally since 1992. As well, a compensation bill for the victims’ families was passed by the government in early 1998. Families of the victims have been exonerated and some monetary compensation has been paid.

Included in the executions in Mongolia were over 10,000 Buddhist monks. By the late 1930s, the Buddhist establishment controlled education, health, and the judiciary aspects of Mongolian society. Their income was almost as much as that of the state and in 1935 monks constituted 48 percent of the adult male population. The monks were targeted as part of the ruling party’s Soviet-led campaign to rid the country of its main religious institution. Subsequently only one lamasery, Gandan Temple in Ulan Bator, was allowed to exist.

Mongolian government officials accused of being Japanese spies in the 1930s had been included in round-ups. A museum painting showing armed soldiers pulling nomadic tent-dwelling farmers from their traditional felt “ger” tents, informs the viewer of the terror experienced by ordinary citizens.

Recognition Begins the Healing

The Memorial Museum of the Victims of Political Repression, as it is named, also contains archival records, posters, and a reproduction of a prison room. Most of the victims of this period were men. A powerful sculpture shows a woman in a posture of sadness. “Princes descended from Genghis Khan, bureaucrats, and clergymen were executed by army-trained cadres,” according to the museum guide sheet. The first purges occurred as early as 1922, based on political in-fighting. The factionalism continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in 1937-41 with massive arrests throughout the country. Tens of thousands of people were killed or imprisoned. Mongolians continued to endure repressive political actions from 1950 to 1980, as people were punished with firings, prison, and exile for “anti-party factions,” “ultra-nationalistic ideology,” and “anti-Soviet ideology.” Current Amnesty International reports indicate that Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, are still subject to similar accusations by the Chinese government.

Stories of cruel and arbitrary family loss from this period are still commonly heard. A Mongolian teacher with whom I worked never knew her grandfather, who had been taken away and executed when her father was two years old. Another man reported to an Ulan Bator newspaper: “One day some men came and forced my father out of the ger. He turned to me and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘My dear son, now is the time for your Bundkhai to go far away to the sky. Become a good and strong man.’ Later, people in green clothes came and confiscated our cattle and property.”

Words and money are small comfort for the Mongolian people affected, but the recognition and public display of a long suppressed history mark the beginning of the healing process.

Ms. Nicol, a Vancouver teacher and writer, taught language teachers in Mongolia, sponsored by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and the Free Federation of Mongolian Education and Scientific Workers Union.  

Reprinted from  Peace magazine.

Romano finds conflict in pursuit of peace

July 18, 2008

by Janet Nicol

When peace activist and family counselor Issac Romano moved to Nelson, B.C. from Seattle five years ago, he did not plan to create conflict. But as he became friends with Vietnam war resisters in the community, he started to get ideas. And when the United States declared war on Iraq, Romano decided to act.

He suggested a public sculpture called The Welcoming be erected to honor an estimated 100,000 draft-age Americans who fled to Canada between 1965 and 1973. Forty percent came to B.C. More than half remain, many in the Kootenay region. American veteran groups were outraged at the proposal of a monument to war resisters and threatened to boycott Nelson. Because the town relies on tourist dollars, council turned down the project.

But Romano wasn’t finished. He began organizing a reunion for war resisters called “Our Way Home,” taking place July 6 to 9 at the Brilliant Cultural Center in Castlegar.

“The reunion will recognize the great contribution made by these men and women who came to Canada, Romano said. They have contributed in fields such as medicine, education, the sciences and as entrepreneurs. They raised families and now their children are contributing in major ways. They are leaders in peace work.”

The reunion will also honour those who helped the war resisters escape and re-settle, many of them Doukhobours and Quakers. “It will be an opportunity to thank thousands of Canadians,” Romano said.

There appear to be no enemies at this conference: Canadian veterans of the Vietnam war are also invited. About 3,000 Canadian men travelled to the US to enlist and 103 died in Vietnam. Their names are among the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who are remembered on the Washington memorial. The veterans will participate alongside war resisters in a workshop entitled “Two Roads Taken.”

During the Vietnam war Romano had a military deferment. “We will look at how violence affected all of us,” Romano said, “regardless of the path we choose.”

Romano doesn’t fear the tension this conference may create on both sides of the border. In fact, he thinks it would be good. “Many Americans can be educated and reflect further on the Vietnam war, he said. This processing was never finished.”

“The reality is many of the architects of the Vietnam war have since said it was a tremendous mistake.”

Canadians will also benefit from the tensions, Romano believes.

“We need to understand our history to help us know how to respond in the future,” he said.

“It is important to remember Prime Minister Trudeau said Canada should be a refuge from militarism.”

Romano says the US government should have given all war resisters a blanket rather than conditional amnesty. This would stop surprise arrests of Canadians such as Allen Abney who was detained in the US this March on a warrant for desertion in 1968. Prior to the arrest, he had crossed the border many times without mishap.

“The government is trying to intimidate those who become deserters of the Iraq war,” Romano said. But he predicts larger numbers will desert and come to Canada. “They won’t be deterred,” he said. “It is a matter of conscience.”

Besides workshops, there will be cultural events and guest speakers, including George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 who opposed the war, Tom Hayden, a US antiwar activist of the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, and Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Canadian activist Maude Barlow and former MP Svend Robinson are also on the roster.

As for the controversial sculpture? Romano isn’t too concerned. He said interest has been shown across Canada. It may yet find a welcoming home.

Reprinted from Peace Magazine.  Apr-Jun 2006.


‘A Place to Stand’

July 18, 2008

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

A Place to Stand: A Tale of the Peace River Country J.W. Secrist. Bloomington, Indiana, Authohouse, 2006. 307 p. $19.99 paperback.

A Place to Stand is a historical novel delivering authentic tales of the Peace River country through the lives of three generations of the Brennan family. The author Jerry Secrist, a retired teacher living in British Columbia’s north east region, has listened well to the people of his community. He portrays his characters as courageous and determined, qualities demanded of pioneering homesteaders and their descendants. But Secrist also describes their flaws, revealing incidents of hard drinking, petty rivalries and violence.

The novel’s central character is Liam Brennan whose memories of early life in Ireland dissolve without regret as he begins a new life following military service in the First World War. He travels with his Belgian wife Marta to the last undeveloped fertile wilderness of North America and together they build a home on the Peace River near Fort St. John.

Liam and Marta are met by their First Nations neighbor, Noah, soon after they arrive. This encounter is brief and holds some tension but will come to a satisfying conclusion when Liam and Noah meet again as old men. The Brennans have four children and enjoy economic success as their farm expands over time. Liam never stops working and when a government-initiated dam is built along the Peace River following the Second World War, Liam reluctantly assists, knowing ‘progress’ comes with a price.

While Liam revels in his homestead, Marta, though a strong and loyal wife, is less at ease, especially in the early years. Their two eldest sons Jack and Willie die tragically in their twenties and their younger twin children, Joanna and Paul turn from the farm in favor of the educated, urban world.

On the margins of the family are grandson Carson and granddaughter Tassy. Carson is a troubled youth, but finds grace saving Liam’s life following a bear attack. Tassy explores her First Nations’ roots, building her sense of self with Marta’s generous and empathetic help. As a result, both grandchildren come to fill the ’empty nest’ in Liam and Marta’s home.

A Place to Stand would benefit from tougher editing. The novel really begins when the Brennans arrive at their homestead. Brennan’s war experience and encounter with Marta in the opening pages would be told more effectively in flashback sequences. Also unnecessary is the brief turn to first-person narrations in the middle of the novel, breaking the flow of ‘omniscient’ storyteller.

But this is a labor of love and the author’s heart-felt feeling for the beauty of the Peace district appears in many passages, such as: “In the background they saw a mountain range running what looked like perpendicular to the river. There was a great notch in the mountains, and through it, they could see, stretching away into the hazy mist of the western horizon, range after range of purplish, snow-capped mountains.” These tales of the Peace River country give the reader a deeper insight into a special corner of British Columbia.

Reprinted from British Columbia History.  Vancouver:2007. 

“Overtime Pay Held Up”

July 17, 2008

By Janet Nicol

DARA FRESCO, a 34-year-old head teller at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto made headlines earlier this year when she announced a class action claim against her employer for non-payment of overtime.

Doug Elliot, a lawyer involved in the case, calls the suit the “largest unpaid class action ever launched in Canada. We believe it will establish an important class-action precedent”

The statement of claim alleges CIBC nonmanagement employees are assigned heavy workloads that cannot be completed within standard working hours, and that, at least in Fresco’s case, she was told not to claim any of it as overtime. Fresco continues to work at the bank after filing the court claim in June.

The suit is seeking $600 million in damages on behalf of 10,000 current and former customer service staff. CIBC has responded that the company has a “clearly defined” overtime policy that “exceeds legislative requirement.”

The suit could take some time. Even the first step, having the lawsuit certified-that is, considered a legitimate class action suit-could take as long as a year.

Similar lawsuits in the U.S. have forced employers to pay overtime at Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Taco Bell and Radio Shack. Class action suits are less common in Canada, but if Fresco succeeds, thousands of bank workers will benefit.

Since women began filling bottom-rung bank jobs in large numbers in the mid-1900s, they have complained of poor working conditions. Trade union organizing drives in the banks started in the 1970s, but either failed or resulted in too few bargaining units to make a difference. A small feminist union in B.C. woke up the labour movement in 1976, organizing 22 bank branches in B.C. and Saskatchewan. The Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC) managed to sign on 700 bank employees, gained a significant legal victory to unionize branch by branch and publish a book [An Account to Settle).

In a recent telephone interview, Jean Rands, a founder of SORWUC, said unpaid overtime was a key issue back then. The banks “smartened up for awhile” after the organizing drive, she said, and paid overtime to keep the unions out.

A year after SORWUC began organizing, eight women bankworkers in Willmar, Minnesota, risked jobs, friends and the opposition of church and community to embark on the longest bank strike in their country’s history. Their isolated and valiant struggle was documented by Lee Grant in a film called The Willmar 8.

Today, banks are still largely unorganized, with employees experiencing layoffs and few improvements to their wages and benefits. Organized bankworkers are represented by the United Steelworkers or the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union ata small number of bank branches and credit unions scattered across the country.

Fresco claims she is owed about $50,000 for the two to five hours of additional work she says she’s put in every week during her 10-year career. She currently makes an annual salary of $30,715.

Elliott and his firm and are working with lawyers across Canada to establish that CIBC is violating the federal labour code by denying overtime pay to employees. The Toronto law firm has set up a web site ( where CIBC employees can register. Hundreds of frontline CIBC staffers have registered online to keep abreast of the proceedings.

CIBC is Canada’s fifth-largest bank and posted a profit of $807 million in its second quarter, ending April 30, up from $585 million in the same quarter a year ago.

Reprinted from Herizons magazine, Winter, 2007.

“The Sleeping Buddha”

July 17, 2008



McArthur & Company


Hamida Ghafour awakens her own sense of buried kinship in The Sleeping Buddha and gives readers a more true picture of Afghanistan. Ghafour’s family fled the Soviet invasion in 1981, eventually emigrating to Toronto. Then, in 2003, Ghafour received a golden opportunity to return to her birth country as a journalist, reporting on the reconstruction effort.

The result is an engaging and moving account of personal family history and contemporary events. Ghafour traces four generations of her family, connecting their lives to the greater story of ancient Afghanistan and deepening our understanding of a complex and diverse history. Her lively portraits of remarkable people she meets, such as Fauzia Assifi, offer some hope.

Assifi is a returning Afghan who is helping to rebuild. Land mines are scattered in the fields and the morality of the people has changed, she tells Ghafour, casting a dark shadow on future generations. Nevertheless, Assifi and others are picking up the pieces. Abdullah, another returning Afghan, gives people raw materials and trains and pays them to build. If they own it, they will fix it, he tells Ghafour. And Qand Agha, a former resistance fighter whose uncle had recruited him in the early 1990s, now risks his life ridding Afghanistan of Soviet mines.

Ghafour saves her opinions for the epilogue. She observes meagre outcomes in the reconstruction efforts, given the millions spent. Let Afghans control and support their culture, she advises. Ghafour believes NATO is responsible for too many deaths of Afghan civilians, and has destroyed a necessary trust. But she also argues that NATO has not sent enough soldiers to make a real difference to security.

Afghans are now “beggars in their own land,” Ghafour sadly observes, leaving her to feel “a delayed grief for the death of someone I had never known.”

But amid her tears is hope. “Afghanistan would have to be healed by ordinary people, Afghan or not,” Ghafour writes, “doing a million small deeds simply because they wanted to.”

Reprinted from ‘Herizons’ magazine, 2008.

Worker-Friendly Stories

July 14, 2008



Reviews by Janet Nicol

THE YOUNG CHARACTERS inhabiting many stories for youth that have been written by or about people in Canada are often either directly involved in, or indirectly witness, an adult world of social class inequities. In Canadian writer Deborah Ellis’s novel I am a Taxi, for instance, teenage readers are exposed to the wretched conditions of children in Brazil. And the gruelling and historic labour of workers in Canada continues to echo throughout many Canadian elementary school classrooms as children read Pil Pony by Joyce Barkman, the tale of a child’s life a century ago in the Cape Breton coal mines. John Wilson’s new book Red Goodwin introduces a new generation of teenagers to the B.C. labour martyr whose death in 1918 led to a one-day general strike.

Yet, a collection of Canadian writings for youth that have a labour theme regretfully would not fill a very large bookcase. Migrant workers’ stories are absent, a sharp contrast to the numerous American books, such as Cesar Chavez, a biography for children by Lucile Davis. The Winnipeg General Strike and the Great Depression, as well as lesser-known regional labour struggles (especially in Western Canada and the far north), are not well-represented in our juvenile literature. Still, there have been many powerful stories written over the last 25 years aimed at teaching and inspiring young Canadians. Here are just some.

The last underground coal mines in Cape Breton were shut down in 2002 but the legacy of miners and their families live on in two children’s books: Boy of the Deeps, and Pit Pony. Boy of the Deeps is a picture book by Ian Wallace, whose own grandfather began mining as a child in England. In the story, James goes to work underground with his father and is guided through the daily routine of a miner’s life. Wallace also provides beautifully rendered acrylicon-canvas illustrations in hues of blue and black. He writes in the forward, “how privileged I was to be born at a time in history when a boy could be a boy, growing naturally into manhood and free to choose his own destiny.”  

Pit Pony, by Joyce Barkhouse, takes place in Cape Breton in 1903 and tells the story of 11-year-old Willie, who befriends a pit pony named Gem as he enters the dark world of the mines, full of danger, but also dreams. Pit Pony was made into a CBC TV movie (available on DVD) and TV series.

Beginning in 1992, 8,000 people were forced to leave Newfoundland to find work elsewhere as the cod industry closed. This is the setting for Janet McNaughton’s enchanting yarn, The Saltbox Sweater. Nine-year-old Katie Johnson watches her mother and grandmother struggle to stay in their “saltbox” house by searching for other work as many neighbours move away. Through the hardships, Katie and her family prevail. A mining strike in another Newfoundland town compels its residents to take sides in Betty Fitzpatrick Dorions novel Whose Side Are You On? For high school student Ron, this means learning to think for himself while his own father is on strike and dying from exposure to toxic fumes in the fluorspar mine. Dorion creates a teenager’s world with empathy and sensitivity.

The Nova Scotia fishermen’s strike in the 1970s, assisted by B.C. union organizers, is the subject of Silver Donald Cameron’s acclaimed adult non-fiction book, The Education of Everett Richardson. Cameron also produced a teen novel, The Baitcbopper. Thirteen-year-old Andrew Gurney watches his father fight for union rights while he faces down his own bullies, at sea and on land, with the help of comrades. This novel is part of an excellent “Adventures in Canadian History” series for teens, based on working peoples’ histories and includes Bill Freeman’s Trouble at Lachine Mill, set during a textile strike in Montreal in the 1870s and Billy Higgins Rides the Freights by Gloria Montero, which follows Billy on the historic “On-to-Ottawa” trek of 1935.

In contrast, the post-millennium Dear Canada historical fiction series (Scholastic Canada Ltd.) and Our Canadian Girl series (Penguin Group, Canada) only include two labour-themed stories between them: building the railway, and life in Vancouver during the Depression. However, girls and diverse racial groups move from history’s margins to the centre of well-written stories aimed at middle school-age readers. (Both series have excellent website resources: see, and

One Proud Summer, by Marsha Hewitt and Claire Mackay, sets the standard for realistic and well-researched labour fiction. Lucie Laplante was only 13 years old in 1946 when she dropped out of school to help her family working in the textile mill in Valleyfield, Quebec. But that “proud summer,” Lucie and her co-workers went on strike, confronting English-Canadian owners, the police and the Catholic Church. Based on an actual strike, the novel shows the strength and courage of the mill workers. Claire Mackay has also written Pay Cheques and Picket Lines: All About Unions in Canada, a book that spells out for young people – in clear and direct language – the history and purpose of unions in Canada.

Strike by Maureen Bayless (illustrations by Yvonne Cathcart) is a picture book story for children with a very big message. Molly’s mom is on strike at the fish cannery leading to desperate times for all until Molly’s beloved teddy bear comes to the rescue and helps the strikers win.

Goodbye Sarah, by Geoffrey Bilson, takes place in Winnipeg “in one of the great class confrontations in North American history,” as the author asserts in the afterward about the Winnipeg General Strike. In the summer of 1919, a battle between strikers and the city establishment broke out and two girls, Mary and Sarah, living on the same street in the North End, find their parents on opposite sides of the 41 -day conflict. Bilson describes a child’s world with great empathy in this haunting trade union classic.

Canadian author Carol Matas adds to the substantial American juvenile literature about textile workers with her novel, Rosie In New York City: Gotcha! Young Rosie joins her spirited mother to fight for workers’ rights in a shirtwaist-makers’ strike in New York in the fall of 1909, through the winter of 1910. This strike actually occurred and was mainly conducted by teenage girls. The author also comments in the afterward on the fire that broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a year after the strike, leading to the death of 146 workers. A pivotal event in labour history, the Triangle fire is the subject of many American books, including the teen novel Asbes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch.

The murder of Iqbal Masih, a child carpet weaver and union organizer in Pakistan, set off a global reaction to improve children’s rights. Craig Kielburger was 12 years old and living in Toronto with his family in 1995 when he heard of Iqbal’s death. Kielburger’s subsequent activism is recounted in his book, Free the Children. And a compelling novel about the legendary child union organizer, simply entitled Iqbal, could very well lead young readers on their own path of activism. Truly global, it is written by Francesco D’Adamo and translated to English by Ann Leonori.

Jane Springer methodically explores child labour issues in Listen to Is!. The World’s Working Children, taking the reader around the world through photos and interviews with working children. She begins with the question, “What is child labour?” and concludes with an inspiring chapter on child activism and networking entitled, “Kids Helping Kids.”

Compiling stories and drawings from child carpet labourers in Nepal, Tanya Roberts-Davis has written We Need to Go to School. Voices of the Rugmark Children, raising awareness not only of children’s conditions, but also encouraging consumers to buy carpets with a Rugmark label, indicating the product is made without child labour.

While most public and school libraries can be counted on for having these books, anyone doing a general catalogue search is hampered by the fact that juvenile literature concerning Canadian labour does not have its own category. Still, stories about work (and justice) will continue to be passed on regardless, as they have been since the first coal mines in North America opened in Cape Breton in 1720. And more stories promise to follow, including Barbara Greenwood’s Factory Girl (Spring, 2007), a tale about a young girl in the garment industry in the early 20th century, told in alternating fiction and non-fiction.

Canada’s modest collection of books with labour-related themes over the last 25 years continues a vital tradition and, while the list is not huge, reading these books can and will most certainly make a difference in the lives of our youth. It already has to some of the teenagers I teach. Inspired while writing this review, I purchased 35 copies of the book Iqbal, and four classes of students (Grade 10s and English as a second Language) have just finished reading and writing about the novel. They were rivetted by the story, and aghast at the real “Iqbal’s” fate: “murdered by the carpet Mafia.” Next we did some Internet searches and discovered the global village of labour activism. Then we talked about individual and classroom actions we can take.

Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, I hope you are equally inspired to bring labour alive through the books your children or students are reading.

Reprinted from ‘Our Times’ magazine, 2007.