Category: Written

Brave women

Brave women

“What’s your favourite colour?” I would ask my parents. “Your favourite animal? Your favourite car?”

At first they would humour me, but there came a point when enough was enough and they’d tell me they didn’t have favourites.

This was incomprehensible to four-year-old me. There must be favourites, there must be best and most-liked.

As I’ve got older though, I’ve come to side with their reticence. Picking favourites is like a declaration of allegiance. I’ve chosen one thing and therefore not chosen others. Maybe red is only my favourite colour of clothing, but for the walls of my apartment, I want something different.

When I’m asked about more complex things, I’m amazed at how people can choose one thing when I see an array of options that can are significantly different. A favourite place I’ve been. The most influential person in my life. The one and only career I must do until I retire or die. How on earth can there only be one?

So to talk about who has been most formative on this Stories North trip is a little difficult and I hope it’s not hedging to acknowledge that I don’t think any one person qualifies. It’s like focusing in on a small part of an 18th-century Grotesque painting. You’re seeing something incredible, but you’re kind of missing the larger picture.

 

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I’d bought a book on prostitutes of the Klondike gold rush, picked up pamphlets about Kluane Lake and Atlin, B.C., and bought some jam as gifts for friends back home. Now I was trying to fit that all in my bag with my camera, lenses, mics, phone chargers and other equipment.

My bag was open on the seat of a bench outside the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre as I drew on my Tetris skills to make it all fit. The sun was shining, which was a nice turn from the beautiful, but damp misty morning we’d had earlier in the day.

I smiled up at a woman who stood nearby with her big grey dog.

“Do you know if we need tickets for the tour starting soon?” she asked.

“Yeah, but they’re free,” I said, holding up my “Golden Ticket.”

She handed me the leash of her dog. “She seems nice,” she said to the dog.  Then, to me, “This is Vincent. Can you hold him a minute while I go inside and get a ticket?’

I nodded and she went inside. I was left with Vincent, who seemed calm about the situation. I couldn’t even remember her face, except that it was kind.

I finished up packing my bag and sat with the dog while we waited for her return. No one looked at us or seemed to think it was strange that I had a dog. They probably thought he was my dog. Or that I knew her. Or I just blended into the hordes of tourists and no one paid any attention at all.

As soon as we started the tour the sunny day turned into a downpour. We huddled under a tent to listen to Parks Canada employees dressed up as famous Klondike figures tell stories of the gold rush.

We got umbrellas and I put up my raincoat hood and Vincent got very wet as he wasn’t allowed into the historical buildings. Between each building, I chatted with the owner as we walked down the boarded sidewalks with the pack of other tourists.

She was on a kayak trip, alone with her dog, stopping at historical places and camping out in the woods. She’d been to places only accessible by water and stayed in abandoned trappers’ cabins. I asked her if I could take her and Vincent’s photo later and she said yes.

At the end of the tour, I stopped to talk to the guide and lost her. She must have told me her name, but I can’t remember it for the life of me.

Brave, smart women have always impressed me. As someone who loves history and wanted to see the places she’d read about was bound to make me pause and think. It was like meeting someone you wish you were.

The Yukon wilderness is vast; it’s monumental. It feels too big to be surmounted by a woman in kayak with a dog. There are bears. She could drown. She could get lost and maybe no one would find her.

There are always reasons not to go, reasons not to do the things that scare you. But if they excite you and call to you, maybe it’s best to follow through. She certainly seemed no worse for wear. Even after being out on the river for weeks, she had friendliness for me and plenty of questions for our tour guides.

I’m nearly finished my third, and final (hopefully) degree. The future lays open with possibilities and it’s like looking up at a beautiful mountain of terror. But maybe there’s a way to navigate through and a friend to share the adventure with.

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The man behind Ottawa’s Vietnamese community

A lab accident in the late 1960s changed a young man’s career plans, his life and eventually the city of Ottawa.

Can Le has a quick smile and exudes energy as he shows a visitor around. The retired economist and president of the board of directors of the Vietnamese Canadian Centre on Somerset Street has spent the past 40 years growing and nurturing the Vietnamese community in Ottawa.

“He’s a determined one,” says Ha Quyen Nguyen, volunteer coordinator for the centre. “For everything he plans to do, he will go until the end.”

When Le arrived in Ottawa, there were few people here of Southeast Asian descent. Today, about 9,000 people of Vietnamese origin live in the city. Most have him to thank for the support systems that have allowed their community to thrive. And Ottawa, which continues its tradition of taking in refugees right up to the present day, owes some of its welcoming mindset to Can Le’s work.

Liem Duong, a software engineer for the Department of National Defence who has known Le since 1983, says he is known across Canada “from Vancouver to Halifax.” But “if you ask him, he won’t say much about himself.”

So we’ll tell you about him…

Read the whole story at the Ottawa Citizen:

The Capital Builders: How Can Le shaped Ottawa’s Vietnamese Community

Sabrina and the hunstman

Sabrina and the hunstman

I saw it out of the corner of my eye, all brown legs and twitching. I yelled and backed out of the bathroom. It’s incredible I didn’t wet myself, given what I’d gone to there to do. The spider crawled sideways up the wall, further into the bathroom, away from me.

Another one. Ugh.

I first heard of huntsman spiders because they were the ones used in the movie Arachnophobia. I’ve never watched the entire thing, but I’d watched a couple of scenes while flipping through the channels, looking for something to watch one night. The movie wasn’t for me—I don’t care for spiders.

Arachnophobia screencap

The spider in front of me in the bathroom was the second hunstman I’d seen in my apartment that night. The other was sitting motionless on the ceiling of the main room. This one was much more lively.

I knew species of huntsman live all over the world. They’re large and scary-looking, but essentially harmless. Their bite hurts about as much as a bee sting, but doesn’t do any lasting damage.

You see, I may not want to watch a silly fictional movie about spiders, but I will spend hours reading up on them. Anxiety is the kind of condition where you tend to ruminate on things that upset you. My fear has led me to know a lot about spiders.

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Earlier that day, before I realized I had eight-legged roommates, I told my coworker about one of the spider blogs I follow. Catherine Scott, the blogger, is a PhD student at the University of Toronto Scarborough and she was featuring a different spider every day for #spiderweek. That day was fishing spiders (aka dock spiders).

Shortly after telling my coworker all my new spider facts, a black and yellow spider descended from the tree canopy above us and almost ended up in my hair.

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I was having a bad spider day.

I managed to go to the bathroom while watching the huntsman skitter about on the far wall. Then I got into my mosquito net sanctuary and warily watched the other spider from the corner of my eye.

First huntsman

“I don’t like you,” I said. “Go away.” It ignored me.

It took a long time to relax enough to fall asleep. To keep my mind occupied I read a great thread maintained by Museum Victoria in Australia that calms people worried about huntsman spiders. As I already knew, they’re quite harmless. Some species also like living in houses. A lot.

Eventually I did asleep and managed not to have spider nightmares. When I woke up, the wall huntsman was gone. The bathroom spider was in some sort of sleep state and when I threw shoes at it and it just stepped over a couple of inches. Not wanting to shower with it, I ended up killing it and feeling guilty.

When I came home this evening, the other spider had returned.

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Another thing I’ve learned from living with anxiety, is that being constantly afraid eventually means not being afraid. The fear dulls to a low hum in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I even manage to feel brave in the end.

I’m not at zero fear yet and I have been checking on it every few minutes to see if it’s moved. My neck is a little sore. But I’m not cowering in my bed or making plans to change apartments.

My coworkers reminded me that huntsmen are harmless and eat the cockroaches. I’ve read they eat mosquitoes, too. So if I’m not delighted with my new roommate, it’s kind of like it pays the rent in a way.

I’m thinking of naming it. Maybe I’ll even come to like it.

A Sri Lankan off-the-map adventure

A Sri Lankan off-the-map adventure

Originally posted on the Students Without Borders website.

“So, where is Sri Lanka?” he asks after a pause. He looks down, then up, not sure how I’ll react. Will I think he’s foolish or unworldly for not knowing?

It’s the question I’m most often asked when I tell people I’m going away. The easy answer is that it’s an island just south of India. I hate this response though. It feels too simple.

I don’t think anyone is foolish for not knowing where the country is, but I hope they’ll give me a chance to explain more than the basics.

The first thing you should know and one of the reasons I wanted to go to Sri Lanka is that it’s beautiful. Do a Google Image Search and scroll through the photographic proof of how gorgeous it is.

But that’s not the whole reason—I’m not quite that shallow—and it’s hard to explain unless you know a little bit more than how to find it on a map.

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A tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy of Maarten Elings (CC).

You should know that I’ll be eating a lot of curry. Which is good because I love curry. I’m not sure how high my tolerance for spice will be, but I can adjust. I’ll take the tears and runny nose in exchange for delicious food.

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My dream is to eat like this every day. Photo courtesy of istolethetv (CC).

It’s also worth knowing that Sri Lanka is incredibly hot and I’m incredibly fair. I expect to be sunburned and sweaty for most of my time there. I’ve been investing in lighter clothing than I would typically wear in an Ottawa summer.

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Sri Lanka is kind of like a mini Australia in that it has a wide variety of animals, many of which are found only on the island. This is making me nervous, because Australia is terrifying.

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It’s a toque macaque–he looks like he’s wearing a toupee. Photo courtesy of Kazue Asano (CC).

Speaking of animals, there’s the elephant in the room. Sri Lanka had a 30-year-long civil war. It ended in 2009, and even though the country has had seven years to recover and rebuild, there is still work to be done. (Further reading: This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian)

Photo courtesy of Kosala Bandara (CC).
Photo courtesy of Kosala Bandara (CC).

That’s partly why I’m going. I’ll be working as a communications intern for Uniterra, a program run by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI). They do development work around the world, helping ensure women and youth have a meaningful place in their societies. They are also trying to set up programs in such a way that people they help can continue working long after the development agencies are gone.

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Photo courtesy of WUSC.

I like to tell stories. I’m a master of journalism student at Carleton University, a former editor-in-chief of the Fulcrum, an occasional radio host for CHUO 89.1 FM and a freelancer. My role is in sharing the stories of the work Uniterra does in Sri Lanka.

If you’ll follow along, by the end of August we’ll all know more than the outline of an island on a sea of blue. This country will mean something more than its civil war, its proximity to India or even it’s beautiful beaches.

Of course I’ll mention geography when people ask where Sri Lanka is. However, I want to let them know there are more important and interesting things than what you can find on Google Maps.

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Join me!

I’ll be posting more here and on my website: http://sabrinanemis.com

You can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter.

And in answer to the question, this is where Sri Lanka is.

Bell, let’s talk about fixing the system

“I wish someone had told me this simple, but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect.” —Jenny Lawson

 

“Sabrina, can I talk to you?”

I walked into my office, expecting another thing to be added to my list. Being editor-in-chief of the Fulcrum, a student paper in Ottawa, meant I was doing a lot less reporting than I’d wanted and a lot more of being responsible for other people’s problems.

She launched into a series of apologies for bringing it up. She said she was sorry, but she couldn’t work this way. Why was I being so abrupt and unfriendly?

I looked at her through watery eyes and felt like someone was seeing me for the first time in months. I burst into tears

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It’s not the kind of thing you worry about, having a bad day. Everyone has them.

An occasional bad day turned into bad sets of days. Eventually the good days were so rare that I wouldn’t want to go to sleep at night, terrified of losing the normal, good feeling.

And I should have been happy.

Everything was going great. I had a job I loved with great co-workers; our paper hosted a huge student journalism conference and I got to meet Peter Mansbridge, Diana Swain and Anna Holmes; I got paid to write my first freelance pieces; and I had my first press pass so I could report at the House of Commons.

It was all of the things I wanted, but I felt so awful. Not awful about those things, just awful about being alive. I opened my eyes every morning and wished I had never woken up. If this was going to be the rest of my life, I didn’t want it.

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“Oh god, I’m so sorry Sabrina, I just say what’s on my mind, and it comes out,” she said it all in a flurry and it took me a few minutes to stop crying enough to respond.

It spilled out. All of the awful feelings, all of the unhappiness and the desperation. The trying more sleep, less sleep, staying home, going out. How none of it made me feel better or less numb.

The night before, in a moment of wanting more than this weak half-life, I had prayed for the first time in a decade. My co-worker felt like an answer to that prayer.

She knew a psychiatrist who operated out of her home and could be paid using OHIP. I could talk to someone, finally, without waiting weeks and months for a referral appointment through the university.

The last therapist I’d seen through the school had told me to start meditating and quit journalism. That experience hadn’t felt entirely helpful, but I was willing to try someone new.

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This therapist worked out. Now I take medication and I try hard to go easy on myself. I’ve had to convince myself it’s OK to take breaks and get a good night’s sleep and ask for help.

But I was terribly lucky. Most students get six paid therapy sessions through the university and then they’re on their own. If you don’t see eye-to-eye with your therapist, you might have to wait weeks or months to see someone else.

This isn’t a personnel problem. My first therapist had the best of intentions. The problem is she’s probably seen thousands of people in the past few years and she’s limited by time and money, just like everyone else in the mental health field.

I hope the funds raised by Bell Let’s Talk go toward expanding and fixing a broken system. If I’d had to wait for months to see someone, I’m not sure if I would have believed it was worth it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post. A long life of unhappiness stretching before you is a lot to face.

Liberals follow the national trend and win majority in Nepean

Liberals follow the national trend and win majority in Nepean

Andy Wang pumpkin 2Maybe Andy Wang just wasn’t ready.

After a close race leading up to the election, Wang, the Conservative candidate in Nepean, lost to Liberal candidate Chandra Arya.

The 27-year-old’s age didn’t appear as a deal-breaker from the outset for voters: there’s been a trend of young Conservative leaders in the west end of Ottawa. Former MP and Foreign Minister John Baird won a provincial seat for Nepean at age 25, before moving to federal politics at 37 years old, and Pierre Poilievre first won his federal seat in Nepean-Carleton at 25.

Throughout this year’s campaign, Conservative attack ads accused Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau of being “just not ready” for leadership, due to his perceived inexperience and youth—he’s 43.

“It’s a sad day for the country. This young boy that we have as a prime minister is not ready and it’s going to be terrible,” said Darrell Bartraw, a Wang supporter who helped distribute signs for the campaign.

Andy WangWang and his campaign manager, Ashton Arsenault, who celebrated his 30th birthday with supporters on election night, are both more than a decade younger than Trudeau, while Arya is 52. However, supporters see Wang and Arsenault’s youth as an advantage.

“What a great bunch of young kids that worked on this campaign,” said Bartraw.

Arriving to the Broadway Bar and Grill on Strandherd Drive to cheers from supporters, Wang didn’t see Arya’s win as related to age at all.

“I think for this election it was clear that they didn’t really understand who they were voting for,” he said, “but they knew who they were voting against.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada targeted Nepean as a riding in which their members could have an influence and encouraged them to vote for anyone but Stephen Harper. PSAC has around 2,700 members in Nepean while PIPSC has about 3,300.

Harper wrote an open letter to the public service on Oct. 1, expressing gratitude and support from the party, as well as stating that unions have made misleading statements about sick leave and pensions. Wang joined Poilievre and other local Conservative candidates to publicly release the letter at a press conference that day.

However, it didn’t seem to be enough.

Arya won his seat in the new riding of Nepean with 52 per cent of the vote.

Pierre Poilievre’s riding split in two this year, and he stayed on in Nepean-Carleton, while Wang, his former constituency office manager, represented the Conservatives in the new riding of Nepean.

The 27-year-old capitalized on his Chinese heritage to engage the large Chinese-speaking community in the riding—outside of English and French, Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese, is the most widely spoken language there. He won as local leader of the Conservatives over Bob Plamondon, a consultant and author, who at 57 years old was a more experienced contender for the position.

While Wang said he would be taking a break with his wife following the federal election, he said he still intends to stay involved with the Conservative Party.

“I still believe in the message, I still believe this is what we need to fight for and four years is not very long,” he said.

Farmers’ market vendors not worried about losing business to foreign producers

Farmers’ market vendors not worried about losing business to foreign producers

On Sept. 29, a group of farmers rode tractors on Parliament Hill and brought cows to downtown Ottawa to protest a new trade agreement. Other farmers weren’t worried at all.

“It’s mainly an issue for the big players,” said Josef Regli of Canreg Station Farm and Pasture Dairy. “For the small ones that make a unique product locally, it’s not really competition.”

On the dim north side of the Museum of Nature on Saturday morning, Regli kept his hands in his pockets until customers came up to his table at the Main Farmers’ Market. Once one person came up, others followed and stood shivering in line waiting to buy his wool blankets, lamb and cheese.

His cheese is the big draw—it’s handmade and comes it varieties customers are unlikely to find in the grocery store, like Stinging Nettle and Bee Balm. It’s also less expensive than store-bought artisanal cheese.

“Our cheeses here go for $44 a kilo, whereas in the store, the same cheese has to go between $57 and 65,” he said.

He sells his cheese through supermarkets in Kingston, Brockville, Guelph and Toronto. Closer to his home in Finch, Ont. though, he prefers to sell his cheese at the farmers’ markets because he can cut out the middle man and sell each wheel for much less than the stores.

This is partly why he remains unconcerned about the potential effects of Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between Canada and 11 other countries. The TPP is set to allow imports of approximately 3.25 per cent of current Canadian dairy production.

“I think for us it’s an advantage,” said Regli. “So I’m not afraid at all.”

Some small dairy and poultry farmers who are governed by a supply management system are concerned about being undercut by foreign producers, but for small farmers like Regli, his closeness with his animals and his product allow him to build relationships with his customers.

“I can exactly tell the customer what’s in there—it’s only milk and the herbs, or whatever you use, and nothing else,” he said.

This is one of the concerns he sees with importing American cheese. He said that since the U.S. has different regulations on their dairy products, there may be concern about growth hormones in imported milk and cheese at grocery stores.

“People who are a little bit more conscious are getting a little bit more afraid,” he said, “so they will stick even more to local or transparent processing.”

The TPP still needs to pass through Parliament after the election, but both the Liberal Party and the NDP have said they will support it. For now, all the parties have said they will continue to support supply management, which allows farmers to collectively plan in advance for how much they believe Canadians will need of things like milk and eggs each year and produce accordingly.

“In the farming business, either you grow and you get bigger or you find a niche,” said Regli.

The farmers’ markets and the local food movement have allowed him to make use of his own niche without having to rely on either the grocery stores or the government. Once the Main Farmers’ Market closes on Oct. 31, he’ll continue to sell his cheese at the Ottawa Farmer’s Market at Lansdowne each Sunday.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “For the middle- and small-sized farms, it’s the only way to survive.”