Archive for the ‘News Articles’ Category

Measuring Peace in a Dangerous World

December 31, 2016

by Janet Nicol

Is the world becoming more dangerous? The answer is ‘yes’—a qualified ‘yes’, according to research results of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a non-profit think tank based in Australia.

“The world is getting less peaceful,” explains IEP Director Michelle Breslauer in a Skype interview from a New York office, “but that’s based on the time period we have been measuring. Since 2008 we have seen a decline in peace—not throughout history. That’s an important qualification to make.”

The Institute established an annual Global Peace Index (GPI) ten years ago, measuring negative peace in countries around the world using 23 indicators related to levels of militarization, societal safety and security and on-going conflicts. “Those 23 indicators are really looking at fear or direct violence,” Breslauer says.

According to the 2016 report, Iceland is ranked as the most peaceful country among 163 independent states and territories and Syria, the least. Canada is in eighth place.

More of my interview with Breslauer is available in Peace magazine, January-March 2017 issue, available on news stands and at



#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.”


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.


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

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  and on-line at the magazine’s website at



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

Reprinted from BCTFTeacher magazine, September/November, 2016


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

Women bank workers benefit from recent court victory

July 20, 2016

by Janet Nicol

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

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


Chronic Kidney Disease Stalks Sugar Cane Workers

July 15, 2016

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By Janet Nicol

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

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

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

Full article now on line at –

A Global First as Mozambique Becomes Landmine Free

April 2, 2016

by Janet Nicol

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

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


The $15 Minimum Wage Movement Rises Up

February 20, 2016

by Janet Nicol

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

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

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

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


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 –


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 –