The Changing Face of Trades: Women in the Workforce

How many tradeswomen do you know? Think about it. Not counting hairstylists, you can probably count them on one hand.

Yet, recent reports show the number of women in trades is on the rise. The Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board’s 2014 Statistical Profiles report shows a steady increase in the number of female registered apprentices. In 2014, that number reached 6,302, up from 5,846 in 2013. Among 25 trades listed the largest increase in registered apprentices were for welders, heavy equipment technicians, gassfitters, and landscape gardeners.

Registered female apprentices in Alberta

Despite the increasing number of female registered apprentices, women still make up less than 9 percent of the total number of registered apprentices. Women apprentices are also less likely to complete a trade program then their male counterparts according to Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education. In the 2013/14 school year, 74 percent of apprentices completed all their requirements compared to 65 percent of female apprentices.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released its own report in July, 2015. It notes, “women’s education levels are higher then men’s in every area except the trades.” So why aren’t there more women in the trades? Ask different people and you get different answers.

Red Seal journeyman tile setter, Jill Drader (34), thinks the apprenticeship system is part of the problem and a major reason why there are so few women in the trades.

Drader is an experienced educator and coach. She earned her first degree in International Development from the University of Calgary in 2005 and later secured her journeyman tile setter and stoneworker ticket after completing the trades program at SAIT in 2009. Jill was then offered a position at SAIT, which involved curriculum development, instructional design, and instructing. In 2014 she was named to Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 list for her work helping women get their start in the trades through Women in Work Boots.

“I truly believe that apprenticeship is a broken model,” Drader says. “You have to go get a job, have that person support you and then [convince them to] allow you to go to school.” According to Drader, it’s a system that poses a significant barrier to entry.

“Imagine we allowed those who have a strong desire to be in this industry to sign up, get trained, and then go out and get skills and get work experience as we do with every other sector. You would have more women signing up,” Drader says.

More skilled tradeswomen would improve the workforce by helping to address the shortage of skilled tradespeople, which continues effect businesses.

Another problem with the apprenticeship system, when compared with mainstream university or college educational systems, is how it relates to external market forces. Drader notes, when the market is soft and jobs are scarce, people often take that time to go to school and upgrade their skills. However this is nearly impossible in trades because nobody is hiring.

Women are excelling as trades.

Notwithstanding, women like April Valentine (30), a journeyman electrician, are changing the face of the industry through hard work and perseverance.

Originally from Hastings, Ontario, Valentine developed an interest in trades work in 2005 when she moved to Whistler, British Columbia with her then boyfriend. He was doing a plumbing apprenticeship and it started the wheels turning for Valentine who started thinking about doing her own apprenticeship.

April: Female trades who are changing the face of the industry
April is part of a growing number of exceptional female trades who are changing the face of the industry.

Then she saw a labour job advertised in the paper. It promised workers the day off if it snowed over a certain amount. “So I said, sign me up!” Valentine recalls.

After the winter season she moved back home. It was time to start focusing on her long-term career. She broached the topic of becoming a trade with her mom saying, “I wish that I could do that.” Her mom replied, “Well, why can’t you?”

So she started to explore her options, speaking to various tradespeople from carpenters, framers and electricians, evaluating which might be best for her. She settled on electrical work.

“I was kind of skeptical. I was thinking, maybe I can’t do this. Maybe it will be too hard,” Valentine admits.

Testing the waters, Valentine started applying for jobs. She sent out resumes and cover letters, but didn’t receive any replies.

“Nobody took me seriously,” Valentine says. “Some places I applied to multiple times. I got frustrated because some of my guy friends applied to the same places and got hired.”

Then in 2006 Valentine moved to Calgary where her luck changed. Within a week of arriving she had a job lined up. The company hiring was unique in that women workers formed the majority. However, if Valentine thought she’d get a warm reception, she was in for a surprise.

“They shunned me,” Valentine recalls. “They gave me a look up and down. They were cold towards me and weren’t friendly at all.”

She changed companies. Through a few twists and turns, Valentine finally landed at Dynamic Building Technologies, a commercial electrical specialist focusing on electrical repair and lighting solutions. She still works there today.

April working on an electrical project
April, electrician and project manager, installs nearly 200 upgraded lighting fixtures as part of a recent project in a Calgary warehouse.

“I enjoy getting up in the morning. It’s a very rewarding job,” Valentine says. How often do you hear someone say that?

Making the decision to go to school and get an apprenticeship has worked out extremely well for Valentine. In fact, she met her husband in trades school and together they now have a beautiful young daughter.

Valentine says she lucked out. The company she works for was very supportive about her maternity leave. It was a bumpy road through apprenticeship, but she thoroughly loves her job as an electrician.

Women face unique challenges.

Valentine thinks women who are considering a career in the trades can be scared away because it’s such a male-dominated profession. Not surprisingly, gender prejudices and discrimination are still a reality for many tradeswomen.

Valentine says it’s not unusual to be second-guessed by equipment salesmen who underestimate her expertise, or for clients to assume a male colleague is in charge even if she has seniority.

For Jill Drader it’s been even more overt. She once experienced blatant sexism when a group of workers began cat calling her from afar. Yet, Drader graciously points out that women face issues in every field, not just in the trades. A few bad apples can give a whole industry a bad reputation.

“Some select individuals, who are immature, rude and disrespectful, desire to maintain the landscape of what it might have been at one time,” Drader says, rather than adapting to the current times and “different face [of] the workforce.”

Kat Hassard (28), a pipe trades instructor at SAIT, says a double standard exists whereby women’s skills are underrated or overlooked by potential employers when men’s are not.

It’s something she’s experienced first hand. After two interviews with a company she had applied for, she was told that the company had never hired a female employee before and they were not sure how it would work. Despite the fact that she had the qualifications, she was passed over for the job.

“I was basically told to my face, that they weren’t going to hire me because I was a woman,” Hassard reports. “It had nothing to do with qualifications. It had everything to do with gender.”

As an instructor, Kat now spends 8 to 10 hours on campus in the classroom or in her office. She says she enjoys tutoring and mentoring students, preparing them for their careers in the trades. During the summer she works periodically to keep her skills current.

The industry is evolving.

There is no question that building a career in the trades is an uphill battle, especially when you’re facing roadblocks simply because of your gender. Yet, more women are signing up all the time.

“I don’t think this is a just trend, I think it’s a shift,” Drader says. “There’s quiet representation and power in numbers.”

Hassard says women need to support each other, whether it is in school or in the work place. “Use the buddy system. Find another woman that’s in the trades. Just having someone to vent to and bounce ideas off of makes a huge difference.”

Valentine agrees. She remembers the impact of having the support of a fellow student while attending classes at SAIT. “My first year I had a locker two down from another girl who was in fourth year,” Valentine says. “She said ‘Good for you! You can totally do this! You got this!’”

Electrical for lighting fixtures
April prepares the wiring on a lighting fixture for installation.

Now, Valentine makes it a point to pass on that encouragement to others.

“There’s immense opportunity for women and entrepreneurship in this industry, whether you finish the formal training or not, you can still own a business,” Drader suggests. “My core belief is that we will have more women in the skilled trades when we have more female business owners.”

The face of the industry is changing, and more women are stepping up to the challenge of becoming a skilled tradesperson. It may be daunting, but the opportunities are there for the taking. With over 250,000 skilled tradespeople expected to retire over the next ten years, Canada is already feeling the shortage of skilled labour. To say the industry needs women in the workforce is an understatement. It’s time for the construction industry to move past its boys-only mentality.

“If you told me ten years ago I was going to be an instructor or a teacher I wouldn’t have believed you,” Hassard admits.

“I love my job and I think more women can do it. I would just like to help more women realize that they can do it,” Valentine adds.

It’s true that change takes time. It takes patience and tolerance and a thick skin to make it in the trades, however the rewards are worth the effort. But the system can only be improved when people join together, arm in arm to make it happen.

Drader concludes, “It’s about being the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said.”

This article was originally published on

Haven of Peace: on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu

It’s December in Hawaii, the busiest time of the year. Tourists abound. Now mid morning, the weather is warm and sunny on the island’s south shore. My girlfriend Sue and I are leaving behind the crowded streets and beaches of Waikiki to visit the Byodo-In Temple on the west side of O’ahu. It’s a place well worth a visit if you ever visit Hawaii, especially if you love peaceful, tranquil places.

You can escape the crowds of Waikiki at the tranquil Byodo-In Temple just on the other side of O’ahu.

Rather than drive the costal highway, we decide to save time cutting straight through the middle of the island. This route takes us through the mountains via a series of tunnels. As we emerge from the last tunnel, our red VW Beetle’s windshield is suddenly pelted by rain. It’s hard to believe just four minutes ago we were looking up at blue sky! The mountains that divide the island are to blame. They push up warm ocean air on the western side causing precipitation.

Around noon, we turn off the main highway, following a narrow, winding road up towards the park’s gate. The road is lined by palm trees and passes through a lush cemetery with rolling grass-covered hills. The graves are widely spaced; almost all are adorned with fresh flowers. As we approach the gate, we pass by a sign that reads, “Haven of Peace.”

Despite the fact we followed four or five other cars into the park, we find a parking spot right away. Although we’re both excited to see the temple, our stomachs are growling so we decide to eat the lunch we brought before exploring the temple.

Our hunger satiated, we grab our cameras and head towards the ticket booth where a man tells us it is $3 per adult. It’s a fair price. We’re both surprised how inexpensive it is to get in.

The rain has stopped now, leaving the air smelling sweet and fresh. The misty clouds overhead cast a soft, even light that wraps everything, leaving no hard shadows.

As we turn to our left, we see an arching footbridge leading to the Byodo-In Temple. The temple is predominately striking red in colour; white panels and yellow ornamental trim work accent the impressive Japanese architecture. Set against the green of the Ko’olau Mountains, the temple stuns one into a kind of reverent silence.  There are a few tourists walking around taking pictures and talking quietly. Others are taking turns ringing a 5 ft. tall Bon-sho, or sacred bell. The resonating sound can be felt as much as heard. Some believe that ringing the bell purifies the mind and brings happiness. The bell rings again and we move closer towards the temple.

A small pond, stocked with gold and orange koi, surrounds the temple. A pair of black swans float by idly. The sound of trickling fountains and bird song fill the air. Gravel crunches under our feet as we tread the path towards the temple entrance.

“Excuse me. Would you take our picture?” we are asked. A small group of young tourists line up with their backs to the temple as my girlfriend tells them all to smile. Snap. One more. Snap. Snap. The trick is to take two more after you say one more.

“Thank you!” they say. We ask if they would reciprocate. They do, and now we are back on the trail.

The Byodo-In Temple was established in 1968. A plaque says the temple was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants. It was modeled after the much larger and older Byodo-In temple in Uji, Japan.

At the entrance to the temple there is another sign asking visitors to remove their shoes before entering. The temple is an important place of worship for the local Buddhists, as well as a place of great artistic beauty.


Sue and I take off our shoes and enter into the Hoo-do, the main Phoenix hall. Inside is a 9 ft. statue of Amida Buddha covered in gold leaf, save for a few spots that have worn away over the years. Surrounding the Buddha are carvings of numerous Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings of perfect knowledge.

Around the hall are wooden benches, where we sit to contemplate the Buddha. Surprisingly, we are the only ones who have entered the temple, so we have the place to ourselves. We sit on a small wooden bench and listen to the silence. The Buddha’s tranquility washes over us and we feel, in that brief moment, enlightenment is tantalizingly close. Then, as other visitors enter the Hoo-do, the spell is broken and we move on.

Sue says she’d like to see what they have in the small gift shop at the far side of the temple. The small shop is guarded by one of the many feral cats that live on the island. A little girl is crouched down in front of the cat, trying to get its attention, but the cat ignores the girl, interested only in licking its paws and cleaning its face.

The cat is not the only resident of the temple drawing attention. Tourists are also gathered around a peacock, trying to take its picture, hoping it might spread its extravagant tail plumage.

Inside the shop we find the usual t-shirts, books and jewelry one would expect in a gift shop. Sue purchases a small iron statue of Buddha that can easily be fitted into our suitcase for the trip home. I decide to buy a necklace. The woman selling them tells me, “My boyfriend makes all these by hand.”

Satisfied that we had soaked up as much good karma as we could, we reluctantly head back to the hustle and bustle of Waikiki.



Shy girl takes off her clothes for art’s sake

You wouldn’t expect a girl who describes herself as an introvert to take off her clothes in front of a camera, but that’s exactly what Beatrix Mae has been doing for the past few years.

Mae began her modeling career as a teen with a focus on commercial fashion work. She had some success with Alberta publications like Vue Weekly and See Magazine, but fashion is fickle and if you don’t have the right look, the look that is trending, your prospects are limited.

Before long, Mae decided that mainstream fashion work wasn’t for her. At the age of 19, she decided to try nude modelling for the first time.

“I just found there were a lot of things I didn’t like about fashion stuff. It wasn’t the aesthetic that I like,” Mae says. “I do really like artsy-fartsy stuff. I like the kind of quirky and weird things, and I found that that goes hand-and-hand with nude modelling.”

Mae was working with Kevin Stenhouse, a Calgary-based professional photographer, one night when she decided to take the plunge.

“He was doing the Little Lamp project at the time, and so I posed for that,” Mae says. “I absolutely loved it.”

The Little Lamp project is a photographic series of artistic nudes featuring different models posing under a lamp. Mae had seen photos from the series and wanted to be a part of it.

The project kickstarted Mae’s love affair with nude modeling, which she sees as a way to express her creativity and reveal her true self for the camera.

“When you’re wearing clothing, or too much makeup, or when you’re really overly stylized, you don’t even recognize yourself,” says Mae, adding with a laugh: “With the nudes it is? just really bare. No pun intended! But it’s just you. It’s really easy to see that beauty within yourself.”

Mae says nude modeling has boosted her confidence and allowed her to move past the negativity she associated with the mainstream fashion business. At the age of 17, she was immediately told she needed to lose weight if she wanted a career in modeling.

“I don’t think that’s a really healthy thing to be telling someone that young,” Mae says. “There’s always a mold they want you to fit. They don’t really let you be you.”

In contrast with fashion models, Mae says nude models come in every shape and size.

“I like the idea that nobody will tell you, ‘No, you’re a little bit too heavy for this project,’ or, ‘You’re not tall enough,’ or, ‘Your nose is a little odd,” Mae says.

Many of the projects Mae has participated involve working with a single photographer in a closed, secure environment but on occasion she has posed for nude photography workshops. Doing a workshop means posing for five or six photographers, some of them complete strangers. Mae says this can be a bit nerve-racking for someone who is a bit anti-social, but having other models onsite helps.

Nude modeling is an art, but it’s also a business so workshops can be a good source of revenue. Mae’s standard rate is $100 per hour and workshops can last 12 hours over two days.

No matter the situation, as a professional Mae is always thinking about how to bring her creativity into the mix. This involves knowing where the light is, trying to create interesting forms and finding a rhythm with the photographer.

Much of Mae’s work winds up on the Internet. As a result, she has had to deal with criticism coming from people who don’t know anything about her but just have to offer their opinion.

“Some think I’m being oppressed or coerced into posing nude,” Mae says. “And then there are people who just think nudity is sexual and associate it with pornography.”

Despite the reaction from a few online critics, Mae says the people in her life are far less judgmental.

“I’m really fortunate that my family is all super supportive of it,” Mae says, adding, “My mom is super proud of me and says she wishes she had the same confidence I do.”

Since her first nude shoot, Mae and Stenhouse have developed a strong working relationship and friendship over the years. The two have collaborated on dozens of projects.

“The most unique thing about Beatrix is her versatility and her ability to be a bit of a chameleon,” Stenhouse says.

Mae adds, “I think we just mesh really well together. I will come forward with an idea and he’ll add to the idea and visa versa. I mean not everyone has that working relationship where you can collaborate. We just have personalities that work well together.”

Although Mae still spends much of her time in front of the camera, she has recently begun to assist Stenhouse with lighting arrangements and client interaction.

“The most important thing to me is that she’s making the person comfortable. They know that there’s someone there that has actually gone through it before and has experienced it,” Stenhouse says.

Mae has also begun to act as a kind of liaison between models and photographers by introducing interested parties to each other. It’s part of her plan to go beyond modeling into other aspects of the business.

This article was originally published by Notice Magazine in 2015


The Humblebrag: The problem of self-promotion

Humblebrag: The problem of self-promotion

Have you ever been accused of bragging? At one time or another, we’ve all boasted about something we think will impress our friends or families. Most of us learn that touting our achievements is tricky business, lest we be labeled a braggart. It’s much better to be humble, so we are told. Humility is a virtue. Ignore it at your own peril.

Braggadocio begins at an early age. Just as soon as we become aware of the fact that our personal identities influence the way others treat us, the process of self-promotion begins. I remember grade school friends bragging about everything imaginable: a banging new BWX bike; an A on a Mrs. Smith’s latest pop quiz; a kiss with Becky behind the tire swings. There was never a shortage of achievements – material, intellectual or physical – to brag about. I got in on the action too. It became a game of one-upmanship. If bragging is synonymous with blowing your own horn, me and my tribe had tubas!

Children might be excused for this type of behaviour, after all, they are just learning the dos and don’ts of social interaction. As adults, little to no quarter is given. So what to do? How can one share personal achievements, of which he or she is proud, without being labeled a bigheaded showboat? This problem was once negotiated almost exclusively during face-to-face interactions, where body language and intonation gave the speaker and listener a better chance of reaching an understanding and of signaling intent. Now, in the Internet age, this is a problem for billions of people sharing the details of their lives on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.

For many, the solution to problem of how to share life’s proudest moments on social media without appearing to boast is to couch their emissions in self-deprecation or humility. Thus, the humblebrag was born.

In a Harvard Business School paper pertaining to humblebragging, Ovul Sezer et al. defined the phenomenon as simply “bragging in the guise of a complaint.” For example: “Agh! I spilled my coffee all over my brand new Hermès bag!” or, “I wish I wasn’t so generous with my time! Now I’m running late for my next meeting!” or, “Being in Hawaii again is so amazing, but if I go out in my bikini, I’m so white I might blind the locals.” But is this an effective self-presentation strategy? In a word: No.

Humblebrags tend to backfire when the audience perceives an ulterior motive behind the message. The attempt mask the brag with an appeal to sympathy or false humility can come off as insincere.

So why are people doing it? Ovul Sezer et al. posit, people “wish to be viewed positively and attend closely to how they present themselves in social interactions. A commonly used impression-management strategy is self-promotion, which allows individuals to bring their good qualities to other’s attention.” It’s pretty easy to understand that people generally want to be perceived positively by others. Entire industries have risen up with the purpose of helping people improve their image.

Sometimes a little bragging is necessary. In an economy where jobs are scarce and competition fierce, effective self-promotion is a critical skill to develop. Interestingly, research shows there are ways to communicate your finer qualities in such a way that you are less likely to be seen as bragging. Two studies referred to by University of Haifa’s Nurit Tal-Or found that creating the right context for boasts was crucial. The principle is this: “self-promotion in response to a question is perceived more positively” than self-promotion that is unsolicited. In other words, bragging in the right context can be exactly the right way to self-promote.

With all the attention on the transmitters of humblebrags, receivers have largely been ignored. It’s all too easy to demonize people who are often just doing their best to fit in and earn the respect of their friends, family and peers. Rather than calling out humblebraggers, why not rejoice with them in their successes? To the humblebrag police: must you always be so keen on putting people in their place? Every social media post a person makes is representative of a individual qualities and therefore communicating some aspect of your personality. Is anyone truly innocent trying to present themselves in a positive light via social media?

Humblebragging may be a relatively new concept, but self-promotion is very old indeed. It is nothing new to shine a light on one’s best attributes in such a way as to appear humble while doing so. Social media has vastly expanded the potential audience for such self-promotion. But with people eager to hashtag a post “#humblebrag” if they sense a boast, beware how you share your next achievement.

If you have to brag, writer Alexandra Kay suggests, “boast judiciously” and “know your audience.” Keep your bragging to a minimum and think about how your audience will react. Sage advice indeed.








Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

It’s the 21st century, yet prejudicial attitudes continue to exist within large segments of the population. Racist attitudes are not as uncommon as one might think. Here in the West, many consider our society to be multicultural, but that’s a pleasant fiction. The West might be multi-ethnic, but in reality, its culture is largely dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant values. Other cultures, including those of North America’s indigenous people, have been largely marginalized. It’s not surprising then to discover that misconceptions, prejudices, and racism are still a part of everyday life.

Although North America is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, many are segregated for a variety of socioeconomic reasons. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Somalis, and other minority groups often form tight knit communities where they have little interaction with the larger culture around them. As a result, there are few quality opportunities for different ethnic groups to interact on anything more than a superficial level. When people don’t understand each other they turn to their assumptions, and those assumptions regularly lead to prejudice. However, when knowledge of cultural practices, beliefs and values are shared, celebrated, and publicized, the problem can be overcome.

Literature as a cultural bridge

Literature, and the knowledge it promulgates, is one of the most important tools in the struggle against racism. Through literature, people are exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and most importantly, they are transported to a place where they may view the world through someone else’s eyes. Although many see short stories, novels and poetry as just forms of entertainment, they play an important role in enlightening the masses and combating racism. Literature is a catalyst for positive change; it influences our ideas about others and ourselves. Whether it is classic or modern, literature reveals the struggles of oppressed peoples, the value of family bonds, and imparts profound moral lessons. Two examples of literature as a cultural bridge are “Sonny’s Blues” and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

“Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin’s classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” is an insightful example of literature that reveals the hardships that were faced by many inner city black people. Though it was written in 1957, it is still relevant today. “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrates literature’s potential to inform and educate. The story centers on Sonny and his older brother as they struggle to make a living in Harlem after the end of World War II. As black men, they both face the tribulations of segregation, racism and low socioeconomic status. The community as a whole is struggling to make ends meet while at the same time dealing with crime, drug abuse and the general state of despondency. The situation for many blacks living in Harlem was dire. The opportunity to escape those conditions was almost nonexistent. The narrator describes the local school children as, “growing up in a rush [until] their heads bumped abruptly against the ceiling of their actual possibilities.” Baldwin paints a picture showing how little opportunity there was to break free of the oppressive conditions they faced. “Some escaped the trap, most didn’t.”[1]

As the story progresses, the reader comes face to face with the specter of racism when the narrator’s mother tearfully recounts the tale of her brother-in-law’s death. This happens when a car filled with drunken white men ran him down in the street. The narrator’s father was witness to the event. It affected him for the rest of his life and “[until] the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”[2] Here we see the long lasting impacts of racism. Horrific events, which occur in mere moments, reverberate in the lives of those affected, spreading out like rings in a pond until they impact the lives of everyone around them.

Although the brothers have been through much hardship, they respond to it differently. The older brother passes judgment on Sonny for his use of drugs and rebellious actions. Initially, he cannot see why Sonny acts in self-destructive ways; however, in time they come together. Their family bonds, combined with the narrator’s newfound understanding of Sonny, help them mend their relationship.

“Sonny’s Blues” provides a view into a world that is obscured to many of us. By exploring the themes of racism, drug abuse, and family, Baldwin is informing his reader and dispelling many would-be prejudices. As author and professor James Tackach stated, “Baldwin played a spokesman’s role during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and much of his most poignant writing is devoted to the racial issues of his time.”[3] Baldwin’s stories were the vehicle used to drive social change. His literature was more than simple entertainment; it was a shout in the darkness – a shout for equality, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

The modern novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie is another example of how literature sheds light on the issue of racism, poverty and stereotypes. The novel , written in 2007, follows the experiences of Arnold Spirit (Junior) as a young man living on the Spokane Indian reservation. A somewhat geeky and awkward kid, Junior feels out of place, even when surrounded by his own people. When Junior decides that he wants to attend an all-white school in Reardan, he is seen as a traitor by his best friend Rowdy, as well as other Indians on the reservation.

Through a series of mishaps and tragedies, Alexie paints a vivid picture of life as seen through the eyes of one hopeful adolescent boy. Junior’s experiences at his new school help inform the reader what it is like to be on the receiving end of racist remarks. For example when Roger, one of the boys at school, asks Junior, “Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?” the reader experiences the shock that comes from such an insensitive remark.[4] When Junior retaliates by punching Roger in the face, Roger calls Junior an animal.

Later in the novel, Junior faces racism again when Penelope’s father Earl tells him, “Kid, if you get my daughter pregnant, if you make some charcoal babies, I’m going to disown her.”[5] Blatant racist remarks and racial slurs are almost commonplace for Junior, but Alexie’s novel also demonstrates how poverty, and rampant alcohol abuse serve to define Junior’s existence. When Miss Warren, the school guidance counselor, informs Junior that his sister has died in a horrific accident, the reader is made witness to the cataclysmic consequences alcoholism has had on Junior and his family.[6] The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian breaks down stereotypical images of American Indians. Instead of proud warriors riding bareback through the open prairies, hunting buffalo, Alexie shows Indians in a contemporary fashion. By doing so, Alexie is using literature to change perceptions as well as to spotlight important social issues. His commentary on reservation life, although entertaining, also has another purpose: to inspire and initiate change.

Literature Prevails

Because literature can be such a powerful tool, it often threatens to upset the status quo. The evidence of this is clear. Even today – in a time when western societies claim to be open-minded and free – censorship of literature still occurs. Matthew Rothschild, a writer living in Arizona reported on one such incident:

The Tucson Unified School District banned the Mexican American Studies program. It specifically targeted seven books, but the entire curriculum, including some fifty titles, was off limits. School officials actually came into classrooms while students were present and took the books away.[7]

Often the people that aim to protect the status quo, actually give power to the very authors they seek to silence. Sherman Alexie was one of the authors whose book was banned. When asked his feelings on the banning, Alexie responded:

In a strange way, I’m pleased that the racist folks of Arizona have officially declared, in banning me… that their anti-immigration laws are also anti-Indian… You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world. In the effort to vanish our books, Arizona has actually given them enormous power.[8]

Racism is still a serious problem, but Alexie and others have acknowledged the power of literature to “change the world.” Books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” and many other works of literature, are part of a great library of hope. Each letter, each word, each story builds upon, and strengthens, the wall of defense against bigotry, hatred and ignorance. As long as stories are being told, as long as people are reading them, literature will continue to be a catalyst for positive change.


 End Notes

[1] Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. Richard Bausch, R.V. Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. 22. Print.

[2] Ibid. 30.

[3] James Tackach. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[4] Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. 64. Print.

[5] Ibid. 109.

[6] Ibid. 201.

[7] “Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[8] Ibid. 17-19.


Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. Print.

Bausch, Richard and R.V. Cassill. Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. Print.

“Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Critical Review of Luc Besson’s 1994 film The Professional

As a journalist-in-training, I’ve wanted to write a critical film review for some time now. So when the chance to take a film course presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity. Fortuitously, my first major assignment was to select from a list of 17 films and write a review about one. The list included films made from 1960 up until 2012, but in all honesty, I didn’t recognize many titles on the list. In general, I’m not opposed to new experiences, but in selecting a film to write about I wanted to choose something I had at least a little familiarity with. I also intended to publish my review on my personal blog; I surmised by selecting something with popular appeal, it might be relatable to a wider audience – or at least the two or three people lonely enough to read it. It came down to Harron’s 2008 film American Psycho or Besson’s 1994 film The Professional. In the end, I chose the latter.

The Professional’s (1994) plot is simplistic: a professional assassin, Léon, is obliged to look after his 12-year-old neighbour, Mathilda, after her family is gunned down by a group of murderous, dirty cops. She offers to do Léon’s housework if he teaches her how to ‘clean’, a euphemism for murder. Mathilda is set on revenge and she needs Léon to teach her his deadly art. The two develop a complex relationship, which ultimately leads to Léon’s destruction. As the film comes to a close, Mathilda summarizes her situation quite succinctly saying: “My family got shot down by DEA officers because of a drug problem. I lived with the greatest guy on earth. He was a hitman, the best in town, but he died this morning and if you don’t help me, I’ll be dead by tonight.”

Although plot of The Professional (1994) is straightforward and easy to understand, the film also contains layers of complexity, especially pertaining to the relationship that develops between the Mathilda and her new guardian Léon. Certainly, the character Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, is an important factor in advancing the plot, but this film is not about plot; it’s about characters. The complexity emerging from the interactions between Léon and Mathilda, as well as their development in the course of the film, is represented in the symbolic meanings of prominent objects. Objects take on meaning when the context of the characters’ motivations and relationship to each other is considered.

Case in point: the houseplant. Early in the film, Léon is shown paying great attention to his houseplant. He carefully cleans each leaf, misting them one-by-one with a spray bottle and then wiping them down with a soft cloth. He attentively positions the plant near the window in his apartment each day so it can absorb life-giving rays from the sun. At one point, Mathilda notices Léon’s horticultural diligence. She asks, “You love your plant, don’t you?” Léon replies, “It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions. It’s like me, you see? No roots.” In this bit of dialogue, the symbolic meaning of the houseplant is partly uncovered. The houseplant is a kind of surrogate. It’s a friend, a child and a mirror of Léon, all at the same time. The houseplant represents Léon’s desire to have a companion and someone to take care of. But Mathilda says Léon should put the plant in a park so it can grow roots. She says he should be watering her if he wants her to grow. Here, Léon is being asked to give up his lone wolf status by bringing Mathilda more fully into his life.

This is the domestication of the predator. As the film progresses, we see the effects of Léon’s domestication. He goes out of his way to protect Mathilda, which leaves him vulnerable both emotionally and physically. When he rescues Mathilda at the DEA offices and when he asks his boss to give his money to her if he should die are good examples of this process. In some ways, he is compromised as a professional; however, Léon never fully turns his back on his way of life. Again we see the symbolic importance of the houseplant when, near the end of the film, surrounded by DEA and police who are hell-bent on killing him and Mathilda, he knocks a hole in the wall as an escape route. He then wraps his plant in a cloth and drops it down the space between the walls before putting Mathilda in. His continued dedication to the houseplant evinces strong remnants of his ruthless assassin identity. Therefore, Léon is not giving up the connection to his old life. He is still the wolf.

Beyond the symbolism of objects are the notable interactions between Mathilda and Léon. In my estimation, the contrast between the two characters and how they interact with each other is the most significant feature of the film and the reason why it is so compelling. In many ways, Léon is childlike. For example, he is seen drinking copious amounts of milk and eating cereal, typical of children. Furthermore, he is unable to read. He also seems to have a kind of ignorance of the world around him. A scene in the film that brings this to light is when Mathilda decides they should play charades. She dresses up like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, but Léon has no idea whom these people are. All he knows is how to kill effectively; popular culture is alien to him.

In contrast to Léon’s childlike characteristics, Mathilda exhibits some very mature mannerisms. For example, she smokes cigarettes, wears slinky cloths and speaks provocatively. Indeed, Léon berates Mathilda for her language more than once in the film. When they are staying in the hotel, she tells the superintendent that she is Léon’s lover. Would it be cynical to wonder then, if the film’s director Luc Besson is flirting with pedophilic undercurrents? The argument can be made that whenever an unrelated man spends time with a very young girl, it must be very clearly explained that the relationship is on the up and up, or certain assumptions might be made.

Yet, Léon and Mathilda’s contrasting reactions to violence are telling. Those reactions reveal the core of each character, which is grounded in the normative view of a child and an assassin respectively. Because of this, the audience is able to see and feel the effects of violence through the eyes of these two protagonists. For example, in the opening sequence of the film, violence is seen as clinical and almost humourous. Bad guys are getting killed right and left, but the audience feels little or no sympathy. It is assumed the bumbling idiots deserve no respect. This treatment of violence reflects the unflinching, unfeeling ethos of the assassin. In marked contrast, Mathilda is devastated by the violence to her family. In particular, the audience is meant to feel sympathy for the young brother who was cute, innocent and totally defenseless. Mathilda’s reaction sets up the motive, as well as the audience’s endorsement, for the revenge violence that is to follow.

In her New York Times movie review, Janet Maslin (1994) makes note of the “extravagant violence” of the film (para. 9). According to Maslin (1994), the oversentimentality of the film overshadows the violence. She sees the cataclysmic explosion at the end – Léon’s suicidal coup de grâce – as “maudlin.” I agree with her assessment. The movie does wander into sappy territory at times. For example, when Léon saves Mathilda by opening up a hole in the wall, the two hold hands while Mathilda sobs and begs Léon not to make her go down the shaft alone. A saccharine sound score adds to the effect.

Maslin’s (1994) review suggests Léon “has a true sweetness” and that “he and Mathilda can redeem each other with the purity of their platonic love” (para. 9). Although there are no obvious indications that the relationship between the Mathilda and Léon was anything other than plutonic, I still can’t help but wonder if Besson wanted the audience to consider the appropriateness of the friendship.

The final criticisms in Maslin’s (1994) review are the problematic and “condescending American stereotypes,” such as the mob boss in the Italian restaurant, and the limited acting skills of Natalie Portman (para. 10). I can see her point about the stereotypes: do we really need another Italian-American mobster figure working out of his restaurant? However, if Besson were an American director, would this even be an issue? I think not. And let’s cut Portman a break! She did a fine acting job, emoting everything from playfulness to cunning to despair.

The Professional (1994) has become somewhat of a cult classic and for good reason. It’s a film that’s both entertaining and surprisingly nuanced. Yes, there is plenty of violence, but the multidimensional relationship between the solitary assassin and the resilient ingénue is the film’s redeeming quality. It’s a redemption that’s reflected in Leon’s personal development. When Léon agrees to open the door for Mathilda, thereby saving her from Stansfield’s goons, he is also opening his heart. By doing so, he’s letting in sentimentality. Consequently, his fate is sealed. He will die to protect Mathilda, but in doing so, he avenges the death of her family.

If you’ve not yet seen the film, I suggest you pour yourself a tall glass of milk and allow yourself to be sentimental. You’ll not be disappointed.


Besson, C. (Producer), & Besson, L. (Director). (1994). Léon: The Professional (Motion picture). United States: Columbia Pictures.

Maslin, J. (1994, November 18) The Professional (1994) Film review; He may be a killer, but he’s such a sweetie. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Social Media Commenting: The Terminology of Praise

As a photographer, I look at a lot of photos: adorable photos, bad photos, memorable photos and sad photos. Most of the time it’s pure voyeurism; other times it’s for creative inspiration. When I see something I like, I often leave a comment. It’s something I really appreciate when others do, so I try my best to reciprocate.

Unfortunately, most comments I receive are trivial or cliché. Terms like “nice” and “cool” are fan favourites. While I’m happy someone has noticed my work, I wish viewers would step up their commenting game. After all, there are so many words in the English language, yet most resort to the same old, tired and played-out vernacular. Flickr even has a group called “Commented with Nice” – presumably a nod to the phenomenon.

They say, it is better to give than to receive. So, over the last few months, I’ve been trying out different terms while commenting on others’ photos. One day, while I was surfing through Instagram images, I saw something really special. I fired off the comment, “This is a truly stupendous photo!” The reply was, “I didn’t know what that word meant, so I had to look it up. Thanks!” Obviously, social media commenting has real room for improvement!

The Categories

The trick to commenting with style is to recognize the three main categories of comment terminology. Firstly, there are low-level terms. Although some of the words I’ve listed below have dictionary descriptions that contravene their status as unremarkable, I am classifying them as such because they have lost their original meaning due to severe overuse. Secondly, there are mid-level terms. This is a long list, most of which are infrequently used, but are common enough that they pop up now and again. Finally, there are high-level terms. These words are typically reserved for only the most monumental of commenter reactions.

The Terms

Low-level: These are your standard compliments, props and kudos. A comment consisting of these words demonstrates a mildly impressed viewer or someone lacking vocabulary. Worse yet, the comment was the result of a lazy bot programmer. If you want to comment with style, avoid these boring words, unless of course the post really is just “good.” If you absolutely must use low-level terms, try one of the modifiers listed after the terms.

  • Awesome – Really? Does this post fill you with awe? Didn’t think so.
  • Brilliant – Fine for everyday use, especially if you’re from across the pond.
  • Cool
  • Decent
  • Excellent
  • Good
  • Great
  • Groovy – Umm, the 70s are over babe.
  • Neat
  • Nice – Like your grandma’s toilet paper doily.
  • Rad
  • Sick – Are you 14? Then don’t use this word.
  • Smashing
  • Super
  • Swell – Lame. Unless you’re using it ironically. Then it’s sick!
  • Terrific
  • Wicked – If you’re from Boston, disregard. I have no beef with you.


Mid-level: These words rise to the level of commendation and admiration. A comment containing any of these words is a step in the right direction. If you’re getting or giving comments like these, you’re either really impressed or feeling a bit like Stan Lee.

  • Delightful – Kind of like a spring breeze. Suitable for pictures of babies.
  • Exceptional
  • Exquisite
  • Fabulous – Yep, this word is fine for straight folks too.
  • Fantastic
  • Fascinating – Spock would be proud.
  • Gorgeous
  • Impressive
  • Incredible – Use for anything big, green and hulking.
  • Magnificent – Anything in groups of seven.
  • Marvelous
  • Outstanding
  • Phenomenal
  • Remarkable – at the very least you’re being literal right?
  • Spectacular
  • Splendid
  • Superb
  • Wonderful – If you’re German, wunderbar works just as well.


High-level: These words rise to the level of praise and flattery. If you’re getting comments like these, you’ve made it to the big leagues! Congratulations! If you’re using terms like these, you’re a master of social media who’s commenting with style. Well done!

  • Astonishing – Pretty much interchangeable with the next term.
  • Astounding
  • Breathtaking
  • Divine – Divas have known the power of this word for decades.
  • Glorious
  • Mind-boggling
  • Sensational
  • Stupendous – Has nothing to do with being stupid.
  • Sublime

Modifiers: Now that you’ve got the terms, mix and match these adverbs to add a little zip to any of the words above.

  • Bloody
  • Damned
  • Extremely
  • Majorly
  • Really
  • Seriously
  • Truly
  • Very


Missing anything?

Okay! Now you have all the tools you’ll need to take your social media commenting to the next level. If I’ve missed any novel or mundane words, please leave a comment below… in the comment box. Yep. That’s the one, right down there.

Anyone commenting with emojis gets extra points for being clever.