‘Twas the Klein before Christmas…

Politics is intensely personal.

My aversion to Alberta conservatism took root when then-premier Ralph Klein stumbled into a homeless shelter 4 days before Christmas in 2001, drunkenly berated a group of homeless people, threw some money at them, and left.

Surely, I remember thinking, the Alberta I know will not stand for this. Surely the people of Alberta, the good people I know, will make him resign. He admitted to a drinking problem, which was not really news. His popularity grew.

The story became all about him. The most powerful man in the province verbally assaulted and insulted some of the least powerful, and the story was about his struggles?

I searched for stories about the people he insulted. There was one or two, but nobody seemed to care too much about them. They were homeless, right?

The question grew in my mind: what kind of province had I been born and raised in?

Research into Alberta’s history reveals a string of populist governments. It also reveals fascinating and ambiguous figures like Premier John Brownlee of the United Farmers of Alberta, who resigned after a sex scandal; self-proclaimed prophet Bible Bill Aberhart and his protege Ernest Manning, who terrified audiences in rural Alberta with apocalyptic Christian plays like “Branding  Irons of the Antichrist”, and The Famous Five, champions of a woman’s right to vote, but supporters of sterilization for the “mentally deficient”.

Other broader shadows lingered over our past – residential schools attempting to eradicate Indigenous culture, Ukrainian Internment camps, Japanese Internment camps – like every other jurisdiction in the world we had been strong in some ways and weak in others. Most of us hadn’t attempted to learn about, much less stop, the injustices that were happening around us. Most of us, and I count myself in this, didn’t care too much about the pain and suffering of people we didn’t know.

So Ralph Klein was not an anomaly in our province. A populist leader who directed our collective anger at “bums and creeps”¹ from Eastern Canada, at people “yipping about AISH”² or at the jobless and homeless, he was a typical Albertan.

The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. (2016 Oxford University Press)

I respectfully submit that the Oxford Dictionary is way behind the times.

In Alberta we have always been driven by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Leaders like Bill Aberhart and Ralph Klein were masters at it. Some in the conservative movement still play on our fears and anger every chance they get.

I was reminded of this last week when an old friend flamed me on Facebook – our Premier should be locked up, we were sh—ing on Albertans, I was drinking too much NDP cool-aid, I should get my head out of my butt – language straight from conservative megaphones.

Way back in 2001 my personal belief was that we lived in a fundamentally good society that cared for the vulnerable and powerless. I believed that inequality, sexism, racism and poverty existed despite the best efforts of our governments to eradicate them. That was simply not true. Alberta’s history, both recent and more distant, paints a darker and more ambiguous picture.

It’s still a great province. Anyone who looks dispassionately around the world should recognize that our lives are a thousand times more fortunate than most. We’ve been given great gifts. We can do better to make sure that everyone benefits from those gifts.

Ralph Klein brought me the gift of insight. He convinced me to learn my own history, and to learn about the marginalized and invisible, because they are important too. Ralph Klein changed my beliefs, and I thank him for that.

Merry Christmas

1 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/5-memorable-ralph-klein-moments-1.1347249

2 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/severely-normal-people-don-t-want-to-talk-about-aish-klein-1.474222

 

 

 

 

 

Mom, dad, I could’ve been a Muslim.

Every once in a while the fact that we’re all human slaps you in the face.

Recently I shared a Facebook post about the fears of American Muslims now that Donald Trump is in power. (You can see the video here)

Someone commented: “While all Muslims may not be violent, if they follow the teachings of their religion that potential is always there. They are not just like everyone else on the street.”

And down the rabbit hole of religious intolerance we go.

There are many counter-arguments to that simplistic viewpoint, but the fact that so many people in North America embrace that reductionist meme is troubling. Why do they do it? The short answer is that we all see things from our own  viewpoints.

I grew up in a Christian household. I went to Sunday school. The people I knew – my mother, father, neighbours and family – were good people. The lessons I learned about life from my stern but loving father (who I was always a little bit scared of) and from my caring and compassionate mother were wrapped in the warm cloak of family, church and social rituals like Easter and Christmas.

When I grew older I questioned some of the claims of Christianity. I stopped believing everything in the bible, but Christianity was still there in the faces of family, in the holidays we all shared together. When I read about the bombings and killings in Northern Ireland and about sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, I distanced myself and my family from those people. What they did was not Christian.

We live in a primarily Christian country, and almost everyone, including the media, agreed that what those people did was their personal action, and that Christianity itself was not violent and was not a religion of sexual deviance…

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WAIT A MINUTE!!!!

I apologize. Let me start over from the beginning.

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I grew up in a Muslim household. I went to the mosque every week. The people I knew – my mother, father, neighbours and family – were good people. The lessons I learned about life from my stern but loving father (who I was always a little bit scared of) and from my caring and compassionate mother were wrapped in the warm cloak of family, worship and social rituals like Ramadan and Eid.

When I grew older I questioned some of the claims of Islam. I stopped believing everything in the Koran, but Islam was still there in the faces of family, in the holidays we all shared together. When I learned about the killings of Christians in Egypt, and the beheadings of reporters by ISIS,  I distanced myself and my family from those people. What they did was not Muslim.

We live in a largely non-Muslim country, and almost everyone, even the media, agreed that what those people did was a religious action, and that Islam itself is a violent religion…


In today’s North America many supposedly good people unquestioningly believe and distribute material that promotes hatred and misunderstanding about Islam.

They’re not all vicious or political opportunists. Sometimes they’re just people who are so steeped in their own religion or viewpoint that they cannot open their minds and hearts to other perspectives.

The only way that we will ever understand other people and cultures is to understand them first as human beings. Just as importantly, we have to understand that we as human beings are primarily shaped by our own culture.

Mom, dad, I could’ve been a Muslim. 

 

Helping Part 2

There’s a thing called a prompt in the Blogging course I’m taking.  This prompt created a jumping-off point for the next piece about the Syrian Kurd refugee we’re trying to help.

He is a young single man, brother to the wife mentioned in the previous post.  He left Syria by foot in 2013, because he had completed a two-year degree and was no longer exempt from military conscription.  He is Kurdish, and as such is in a double bind:  if he returns to Syria and the government forces stop him, he can be forced to fight for Assad against his own Kurdish people and against other rebel groups.  If he returns to Syria and goes to a Kurdish area, either of the Kurdish groups fighting against Assad and the other rebels could force him to fight.

He has a degree which he took in English and speaks English well.  In his current situation in Turkey he cannot legally work and he cannot travel freely because of the many refugees travelling through Turkey to the EU.

Until three days ago he worked in a lamp shop for half wages, acting as an interpreter for customers.  His shop was 1 km away from the suicide bomb blast that killed 10 people in Istanbul.  With no customers, his job is gone.

We are waiting, as is he and his family here in Canada, for paperwork to come through from the Syrian embassy in Istanbul that will allow us to complete the sponsorship application and have it submitted to the Canadian and Turkish governments.  While he is waiting, there is violence all around him.  Syrian refugees are being blamed for the latest blast and the police have rounded up suspects.  There is nothing that we, or he, can do to speed up the process.

The prompt for this post was about belief.   Belief is:

An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof:  Oxford English Dictionary

In an e-mail just yesterday, this young man said he still believes and is still strong in his hope that everything will be okay and that he will be allowed to come to Canada.   I call that belief, and strong belief.  We just hope his belief will be proven true.

Reason to Believe

 

Helping Part 1

When the pictures of the young boy whose drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach suddenly raised international awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis, it sparked our empathy as well.  My wife Hengameh (May) and her family were from Iran, so she knew first hand how difficult life was in some countries.  She attended the vigil at the Alberta Legislature on September 8, 2015 and subsequently we both attended an information session held at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

We were not part of a group, and therefore could not afford to sponsor a family, but the Mennonite Central Committee put us in touch with a Syrian Kurdish family (wife, husband and young son) already here who were trying to help the wife’s brother come to Canada.  They had immigrated as government sponsored refugees through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees earlier in the year.

Their story is similar to many of the refugees.  Before the civil war began in 2011 they lived a good life, had jobs and were paying for a home.  Aleppo, where they lived, was a sophisticated, modern city with a long history and many amenities.  In 2012 that all changed.  The civil war came to Aleppo.  The building beside their home was shelled and collapsed.  Their own home was damaged.  Rebel groups started to move into the city and loot for supplies.  The couple had just had a son, and he was two months old when they decided to flee.  Luckily for them, the husband had family in Turkey, so they were able to legally cross the Turkish border and stay with them while they applied for refugee status.

They came to Canada in the spring of 2015 and found an apartment on the south side of Edmonton.  They did not speak English, had little money, and were distant from the Kurdish community here.  When we met them in October of 2015 the husband was taking English classes every day, while the wife stayed home with their young son.  May arranged appointments at the EMCN for both of them, one with an Arab-speaking interpreter who helped the wife fill out the immigration application form for her brother, one with an EMCN worker who helped the husband fill out his resume in English.  Through our contacts with a grocery that supplied Iranian food, May was able to help the husband get a job in a new restaurant just opening.  Now he goes to English classes in the mornings and works, and the wife is starting English classes as well.

It really does take a coordinated effort, and we have been helped by many people, including a good friend at the EMCN and a Kurdish community broker who met with us and the family to interpret.  We had the Kurdish family to our home for Christmas, and other good friends of ours went with their family to purchase gifts for the newcomers.  It was a joyful time watching the young boy play with toys all night long.

Currently the brother who we are trying to help is a refugee himself, a Syrian Kurd living in Turkey, with violence and poverty around him.  More on him and his story in upcoming posts.

 

 

Layered Memories

There is a very cool photo on the Dutch goes the Photo! blog taken in an abandoned barn.

It brought to mind the abandoned buildings on our family farm.  All the childhood memories layered in the dust and the cobwebs, and the way our imaginations project those memories on the screen of our minds.

Below is a picture of my oldest daughter (snapped by my younger daughter) walking out into the field at the farm.  The building on the right was a pig barn when we built it in the 70s.  It is now a shed.  I can remember making the concrete for the floor and  gutters, a cement mixer churning slowly, me shoveling in the sand, gravel and cement mix, spraying water with a leaky hose that drenched everything within range, including brothers, father and dog.

Faun into the horizon

The old wood building to the left was a granary, and one spring a swarm of bees attached itself to the wall and decided to call it home.  I can remember how terrified I was of those bees, and fearing that they would swarm me if I came too close.

And in the middle of memory, there’s my daughter, walking through those projected pasts into a world of her own making.