Jose Soriano sees Canada as an adventure and a challenge

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Jose Soriano entered the pharmacy. It was a warm summer day in Montreal – a perfect day to get outdoors and enjoy the weather. His wife Leydy suggested they get some sunscreen first, so Jose volunteered to go get it. As he walked past the aisles, he spotted a clerk. Thinking he might get some advice, he decided to ask her a question about the sunscreen. He opted to speak French because he was in Montreal and because he thought it would be polite, but he very quickly realized his mistake. His French wasn’t good enough and he was just confusing the clerk. He promptly switched to English, hoping he would be understood, but that failed as well. To his amazement, the clerk continued speaking in French; then she simply turned and walked away!

As a new resident of Canada, Jose says his encounter in the pharmacy was just one of the many cultural challenges he’s faced since emigrating from Venezuela. Experiencing difficulty finding the right sunscreen might be a small hurdle, but it illustrates how even seemingly simple, everyday tasks can become points of miscommunication. Despite that, Jose says his decision to come to Canada is one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

Jose left Caracas, Venezuela when he was 31. At the time, he had limited proficiency in the English language, which he had picked up during his time at university. For this and other reasons, leaving Venezuela was not an easy decision. Not only was he leaving the familiarity of his country, he was leaving his friends and his loved ones.

“Leaving my family behind is still the most difficult thing. It will take years for me to overcome that,” Jose says. Thankfully, Jose’s family who live in Venezuela but are of Italian decent, have been very understanding and supportive. Venezuela has experienced many years of political, economic and social upheaval. Employment opportunities are scarce and crime is a real concern. In fact, when Jose arrived in Canada, he was surprised at how different it was from his home country.

“I was surprised by how respectful Canadians are. They seem to respect the law in every aspect.” It’s not surprising Jose feels this way. According to a 2013 Gallup report, Venezuela is one of the most “insecure” nations in the world due, in part, to a very high murder rate. One of the generally cited reasons for the problem is a dismal economic situation.

Two important criteria Jose considered in selected Canada as the place to start a new life were better career opportunities and the fact that Canada is highly rated on world indexes for standard of living.

Jose’s gamble is paying off. Since coming to Canada, first to Montreal and later to Calgary, he has worked hard to build his skills as a photographer. Being a photographer is a competitive prospect, but Jose feels he has some cultural advantages that will help him succeed.

“I grew up in an environment where you have to fight for what you want. I never got the easy toy, trip or car I wanted. I had to fight and work hard in every sense to get that,” Jose explains.

In his efforts to create a new life in Canada, Jose was not alone. He had the support of his wife Leydy who immigrated with him.

“When I met Jose, he’d been already working on the immigration project to Canada. I had no immigration plans at that moment, but I supported him by agreeing to come together and have a new start,” Leydy says.

Leydy says that one of her and Jose’s primary goals was to adapt to the culture of Canada as much as possible even though Canadians can sometimes make that difficult for them.

“I think Jose has struggled. It’s been difficult for him to get used to starting from the very beginning in another country where you have no friends, no family, no social connections,” Leydy says, adding, “It’s been difficult for him to get accustomed to [Canadian] people not trusting foreigners.”

According to Jose, making friends was easier in Venezuela, whereas in Canada it takes longer to build a level of trust. It’s is one of the things that he misses most about his home. However, he’s got a list of other things too: the food, the hot weather and, of course, his family. Jose laughs and jokes about Canada’s cold weather saying no country can be perfect.

It’s been three years since Jose arrived in Canada. His English has improved steadily and he is finding it easier to communicate. Basic communication is easier, but Jose doubts he will ever truly feel Canadian.

“Sometimes I think I will never feel like a Canadian because I have very strong Italian culture and, of course, Venezuelan. At this age it is kind of difficult to adopt the Canadian culture fully, but I’m pretty sure I will get used to it.”

Although finding his footing in a new country is a lifelong process, getting the right sunscreen is no longer a problem. Now, Jose has bigger fish to fry. He’s been working on his photography business and recently enrolled in a user experience design program at Bloc, an organization specializing in online training. If there’s one recurring theme in Jose’s life it is this: the drive to succeed, despite the obstacles.

“My family and business are my biggest focuses in my life. I think they are linked; one doesn’t work without the other. So, I will keep working hard to achieve my goals and when I get them I will start looking for another challenge to keep me alive.”

I Might Be Wrong

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I’m opinionated. It’s an admission, and it’s one that I don’t shy away from. It might be seen as negative in some circles to hold strong opinions, but I feel can also be a strength, with one important caveat: one must be willing to admit they are wrong, if and when the facts contradict their opinions.

I’ve encountered people who, when asked their opinion about a given subject, reply, “Hmm, I’m not sure. I’ve never considered that before.” It’s difficult to be opinionated, if you have no opinions. A person who maintains a strong opinion can only do so if they have previously considered an issue, made a judgment as to their position on that issue, and subsequently formed an opinion. The more considered the issue, the stronger the opinion. As a rule then, the more opinionated you are about an issue, the more informed you are about it. However, there is an important exception to this rule.

Some opinions are based in ideology. Ideological thinking is problematic because ideologies have built in firewalls that enable the formation of very strong opinions – and even beliefs – without sufficient consideration of the totality of facts surrounding an issue. Take politics for example. There are those that believe that the best way to grow an economy is to reduce taxes. In some circles the reduction of taxes, at all times and in all circumstances, is akin to religious dogma. They hold the opinion that tax increases can never be justified. Taxes are always bad; it is incontrovertibly true. So these ideologues may hold strong opinions on taxes, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that their opinions are well informed. Quite the contrary; the ideology they adhere to actually prevents the consideration of alternative views. As such, the ideology has a built in immunity to contrarian views.

So we’ve seen how some strong opinions can be based on careful consideration of factual evidence, while others are held in strict accordance to an ideology. But can it be determined if a strong opinion, or belief, is well informed or simply the product of ideology? Certainly.

Those holding fast to ideological opinions can be identified by a number of distinguishing characteristics. For starters, they are certain their opinions are correct. They give no ground; they are utterly resistant to any evidence that may disprove their notions. They may actively avoid debate, taking offence if their opinions are openly challenged. When asked to justify their opinions they may answer by saying, “I just know it to be true.” If you encounter someone who admits of no possibility that they are wrong and outright dismisses any facts of figures that may rebut their argument they’re probably an ideologue.

In contrast, those with informed opinions rely on verifiable information. If the information available to them changes, the opinions must change. It is not a failing to be wrong. Indeed, being wrong leads to adaption, new concepts and theories. This is how progress is made. Without mistakes, nothing can be learned. That is why those who hold strong, informed opinions are often more likely to revise their thinking in light of new actualities, while those that cling to unfounded ideology stagnate. It is possible to be opinionated, why reserving the right to be wrong. Those with informed opinions are not likely to be perfectly certain; instead they my make reference to plausibility and probability. For example, I believe that god probably doesn’t exist; however I’m not perfectly certain, I just find it highly improbable.

My personal opinions are based on information. I admit that the information available to me isn’t perfect, nor is it unchanging. I might be wrong to incorporate the latest findings of string theorists or paleobotanists into my held opinions; however, the likelihood of my informed opinions being preferable to strictly ideological opinions is high. I might be wrong, but no matter, an opinion worth having is an opinion worth defending.

You Don’t Care, Right?

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Democracy has a critical weakness. Its success depends on active participation by its members. When apathy rules amongst the proletariat masses, democracy boils down to oligarchy. Tell that to the average Joe and he’ll shrug his shoulders, take another swig of beer, and ask, “So what?” As frustrating as that response can be for those of us that care about democratic process and social justice, it’s not all that surprising that most people just don’t give a hoot. In 2011, CBC reported that nearly 40% of Canadians didn’t bother to cast a vote in the federal election – an election that would determine the leadership of the country. Admittedly it is hard to pinpoint the cause of low voter turnout. Apathy might be to blame, but cynicism is almost certainly a contributing factor.

South of the border, the California Voter Foundation conducted a poll in an attempt to understand the phenomenon. They asked eligible voters why they had not cast a ballot. 24% of respondents cited being “too busy” as their reason for not voting. There are lots of other reasons people give for not voting. Not being sufficiently informed on the candidates’ policies, dislike of the choices, disbelief that their vote really counts: these are all reasons to stay home.

It may be unfair to say that people just don’t care. When asked about the importance of voting nearly 98% of people living in democracies will agree that voter participation is crucial. However, those sentiments dissipate like a fart in the wind when it comes time for voters to act on their convictions.

The problem of apathy goes well beyond the voting booths. Apathy exists in high levels on nearly every topic of social justice and policy. If you ask people about the environment, homelessness, health care or education, most will say they care about the issues. Unfortunately, the general public is woefully uninformed about existing governmental policies aiming to address these issues. Can we ever expect people to care about issues they know little or nothing about? We need only go ‘Jay Walking’ to see how little the general public knows about anything other than pop culture and consumerism. Canadians like to think of themselves informed and socially – if not politically – active, but the truth is Canadians are about as apathetic as many Americans. Again, so what?

Regrettably, the apathetic public unknowingly cedes control over its own destiny by abdicating its responsibilities to those who may not have their best interests at heart. The average Joe might be unconcerned about the political and social system in which he lives, but it would be foolish to assume the safety of letting others make decisions for him. Where the public cedes control, corporations and other special interest groups step in. No doubt, apathy is a known commodity – and a valuable one at that – for the parties interested in deciding the rules of the game.

The adage, ‘you get the government you deserve’, may be truer today than at any time before. At a time when lobbyists and powerful corporate concerns influence government like never before, it is vital for citizens to remember their responsibility to themselves and future generations. That responsibility includes active participation in society, not merely as a consumer, but as an active citizen.  Living in a democracy comes with the duty of contribution and involvement. The power to impose policy cannot, and should not, be ceded to a select few.  Lethargy is poison to democracy; it pollutes the lifeblood of self-determinacy. But you don’t care, right? No problem; there are a few that do. They’ll be deciding your future. Will you let them?

Why Safe Injection Sites are Needed in Calgary

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Calgary is a jewel in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. With its high standard of living, bountiful job opportunities and great natural beauty people are migrating here in record numbers. In fact, Calgary’s population has ballooned in the last ten years from 1,076,000 in 2002, to 1,385,800 in 2012. A resilient job market has benefitted many Calgarians even in the midst of a worldwide recession. With many benefitting from a strong economy, Calgarians take pride in ‘giving back’ through community outreach programs. There are more volunteers per capita in Calgary than any other major Canadian city.  However, Calgary also faces serious social issues like homelessness and crime. According to the RCMP, addiction to illicit drugs like heroin and opium are on the rise.

Although many Calgarians are unaware of the problem, a number of concerned citizens and social workers have been working to reduce some of the risks that drug addicts face. Fatal overdoses and the spread transmittable diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C are a real issue. To combat the problem, cities like Vancouver, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto have opened safe injection sites – called Insites – where drug users go to inject drugs in a safe, controlled environment. Shelly Tomic, a 40-year-old Vancouver woman who has been fighting drug addiction most of her life said, “We’re looking for that life preserver and Insite is that life preserver.” Unfortunately, Calgary has no such life preserver; drug users must resort to shooting up in parks, public restrooms and other public spaces, putting themselves and the general public at risk. Calgary should provide a safe injection site, thereby reducing the risks associated with injected drug use.

Critics of Insite point out the high costs of operating safe injection sites. In Vancouver it costs about $2 million a year to operate one facility, which is open seven days a week. However, the costs of not having safe injection sites are also worth considering. Taxpayers may pay even more if drug users wind up in the prison or healthcare system. When drug users do not have access to clean needles they will often share them with others. The resulting spread of communicable diseases, like HIV or Hepatitis C, often requires expensive medical treatment. Insite has been shown to reduce the spread of disease and thereby reduce the costs of treating patients. A drug user can be rehabilitated, but if they become infected with HIV or Hepatitis C, it is a lifetime affliction – and a lifetime expense for taxpayers.

Opponents say that safe injection sites simply enable people to continue what they are already doing – injecting harmful drugs. Admittedly, some research suggests, “drug-consumption sites merely serve to rubber stamp the use of illicit drugs unless they come equipped with accessible, effective drug-rehabilitation programs.” However, since the early days – nearly ten years ago – before rehab programs were available, much has been done to improve drug users’ access to rehabilitation. Debra McPherson of the B.C. Nurses Union noted, “Over 500 went to detox last year. Over 200 were prevented from overdosing accidentally.” Clearly Insite is not merely about enabling; it is about breaking the cycle of addiction and saving lives.

Those opposed to Insite insist society is sending mixed messages to drug users by appearing to support their habits. As Toronto police Chief William Blair said, “The ambiguous messaging that comes out of a society that says you can’t use these drugs, they’re against the law, but if you do, we’ll provide you a place to do it in.” Blair is not alone in his opinion; according to studies conducted in Ottawa and Toronto, many in law enforcement are skeptical of so-called harm reduction strategies. As one Ottawa police officer said, “We’re keeping them as addicts, as opposed to trying to get them to be former addicts, where they can once again contribute, maybe do some things that they’ve always wanted to do as opposed to being stuck in a vicious circle.” Admittedly, the lack of support by law enforcement is cause for concern, but police are focusing on – and sending – the wrong message. The most important message is: society cares about the health and welfare of drug addicts and wants to help them break their deadly addictions. By having Insite locations in Calgary, it would send a powerful message that Calgarians care and sincerely want to help.

Calgarians largely support progressive policies as long as they are effective. Worth considering then is Insite’s proven track record of success. The first Insite opened in Vancouver in 2003. City officials have had nearly a decade to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Recently Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson, expressed his support of the facility. “Insite has proven beyond a doubt its value to the community.” Robertson is not alone in his support of Incite. When the Harper government tried to shut Incite down five of Robertson’s predecessors – Sam Sullivan, Larry Campbell, Phillip Owen, Mike Harcourt and Art Phillips – collectively sent an open letter to the federal government arguing that Insite should remain open. The research backs them up. It shows a clear reduction in the transmission of infectious diseases, fatal overdoses and continued drug use.

Calgary would be well served by opening an Insite. It is not a perfect solution, but an important move in the right direction. Illicit drug use is a complex and challenging problem. For some it is a matter of public safety, for others it is a matter of life and death. For Shelly Tomic, it was Incite that turned her life around and freed her from addiction. By supporting progressive social change, by petitioning local politicians, by being part of the solution, Calgarians will be saving lives. It is a noble cause, and as Shelly Tomic can attest, very achievable as well.

Canada: A History of Environmental Exploitation

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Canada is a nation with abundant natural resources including coal, oil, gas, fish and game animals, fertile farm land, rare metals and minerals, fresh water and timber. Although Canada’s resources are abundant, they are not limitless. Striking a balance between economic growth and environmental stewardship has been an ongoing challenge for Canadians since the first European settlers colonized eastern Canada and the Maritimes.

For thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans, First Nations people had unrestricted access to Canada’s lands and its resources. First Nations’ impact on the land was negligible and they were able to maintain near equilibrium with nature. Although First Nations hunted many animals, they did not take any more than what was needed to feed and clothe the tribe. Buffalo, deer, beavers, and fish were used as food sources and trees were felled to construct teepees or longhouses. First Nations made excellent use of the resources they took from nature. When a buffalo or deer was killed, the meat was used for food and the rest of the animal was also used for other purposes. The skins, bones, innards and sinew were used to make tools, clothing and cooking utensils. In this way, First Nations people minimized their impact on the environment. Nothing was wasted; their use of natural resources was sustainable.

When European settlers arrived in Canada, they discovered a land that was largely untouched. Forests were plentiful, wildlife was abundant and the ocean waters around the Maritimes were home to colossal fish stocks. Although First Nations people were already established in the Maritimes and along the St. Lawrence River, Europeans did not recognize the rights of the First Nations people. Instead, they began to divide up the land for colonization and farming. They also established large-scale fisheries. The impact on the environment was significant. Large areas of forest were clear-cut to prepare the land for farming. Without trees, whose root systems held together the soil, erosion began to take place. Rich topsoil was washed away into the surrounding river systems and many farms simply dried up.

In New Brunswick, the timber industry was big business. By1826, fully 75 percent of that province’s export revenues came from timber. Historical Geographer Graeme Wynn noted the impact of the timber industry on the local rivers: “Sawdust dumped into the rivers soon became sodden, sank to the bed of the stream, disturbed the river ecology, and obstructed navigation. In suspension it floated downstream, was deposited on the banks and intervals, and drastically reduced fish populations.” Deforestation was negatively impacting the environment, but the economy was being stimulated by the sale of lumber. With a steady supply of wood, the shipbuilding industry in New Brunswick flourished.

Early European settlers put pressure on the environment in a number of ways besides the felling of trees. Across Canada, different regions were facing different ecological pressures. In Nova Scotia, marshlands were drained by Acadians to make room for farms. In Quebec, forests were felled and land was eroded. Around the Maritimes oceans were being over fished. In British Columbia, otters were nearly decimated for their pelts. In the north, seal populations were being reduced by over hunting. Indeed, all across Canada, animals, especially beavers, were slaughtered en masse for their furs, which were fashionable in Europe.

As Canada’s economy became increasingly dependant on trade, the demand for resources intensified. First Nations were not immune to the pressures to conform and trade. Because of a growing dependency on European goods such as guns and iron implements, First Nations began to take more from the land than what they needed to survive. They hunted and trapped as many animals as they could in order to trade with the Europeans. The culture of aboriginal people was being influenced by metropolitanism and a burgeoning trade economy that extended across Canada. Once careful custodians of the land, they were now complicit in the decimation of animal populations. As animal populations declined, the traditional way of life for First Nations people became less and less viable.

Pollution and environmental degradation were not only affecting rural areas, but cities as well. By the early 1900s Canada’s urban populations were facing major pollution problems. Large amounts of sewage and refuse were being generated as cities expanded. Many municipalities simply drained waste into the nearest rivers or lakes. For example, in 1911, city officials in Vancouver hired expert sanitation engineer R.S. Lea to design a sewerage system to deal with the wastewater problem. Lea’s plan involved building a network of sewers to collect waste from houses. The waste would then be routed into larger inceptor sewers and finally pumped into the sea or the Fraser River. This approach demonstrated a belief commonly held in the early 1900s that nature was like a sponge into which pollution could be absorbed.  In his report, Sink or Swim, Arn Keeling illustrates the lack of foresight regarding environmental protection among leading city planners: “Lea’s definition of pollution weighed hygienic, aesthetic, and economic considerations, not environmental quality per se.”

After World War II, Canadians began to prosper and the economy was growing. By the 1950s many newly prosperous Canadians were taking part in outdoor recreational activities. Provincial parks were overflowing with visitors putting natural ecosystems at risk. Early conservationists called for the protection of natural habitats in the form of nature preserves. In Ontario, the government introduced a program of park expansion in response to the high demand for protected parks.

During the 1960s and 1970s, environmental issues came to the forefront of Canadian’s collective consciousness. Environmental protection groups, such as Greenpeace, were founded as citizens sought to affect change. Clean water was of paramount importance. Novelist Hugh MacLennan’s insistence that Canadians should “think like a river” lent support to the general populace’s concern over the environment. Pulp and paper companies and smelting companies were the biggest offenders in polluting the water. Because cleaning up the production process was a huge expense, critics petitioned the government to force companies to share the burden. Detergent manufacturers were also to blame. Their phosphate-laden suds were causing rampant algae, depleting oxygen levels in the water and killing vast quantities of fish. Politicians responded by addressing public concerns. In June 1969, Vancouver’s Mayor Tom Campbell took a swim in English Bay to show his constituents that the water was clean and that pollution was being dealt with, however his critics were quick to point out that there was still more to be done. Because of mounting pressure from environmentalists, including the Pollution Probe, the government agreed to take steps to cut phosphate use.

Although water pollution was still an issue, in the 1970s air pollution from automobiles seized the public’s attention. Both in Canada and the US, regular citizens and environmentalists alike demanded that something be done to curb emissions. Smog covered major Canadian cities including Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver. In 1970, the United States Congress passed stringent new laws to cut back on automobile emissions in their Clean Air Act. Canada, however, did not follow suit by harmonizing their laws to those of their American neighbours. Historian Dimitry Anastakis noted, “In Canada, the federal government and industry focused upon the economic consequences of harmonized emission standards.” Once again economic considerations trumped ecological concerns.

In the 1980s, pressure on government to enact environmental protections reached new heights. Canadians had discovered the ill effects of unregulated economic growth.  Local and national issues dovetailed with global issues such as global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion and the destruction of the rain forest.  Canada responded by signing a number of multilateral agreements designed to address environmental concerns. Although people were looking to the government for better regulations and environmental protections they were increasingly looking to their own consumption habits as one means to reduce demands on natural resources. Citizens organized by forming associations and political lobbies to support a variety of environmentally friendly initiatives.

Passing laws to protect the environment was not easy for regulators. Many of the largest polluters were also important to the economy since they employed thousands of workers. When the provinces attempted to impose controls, companies resisted and threatened to close down operations.

Public support for environmental protection historically takes a back seat to economic issues. When given a choice between supporting job creation or the environment, most people put their immediate self-interest above potential long-term damage to the biosphere. The negative effects of cutting corners by exploiting natural resources in unsustainable ways is often hard to see until much time has passed. In the 1990s, cash-strapped provincial governments found it easier to cut environmental spending than to cut other programs such as health care. Indeed, budgets were so low that existing eco-regulations were often unenforceable due to lack of funding to monitor compliance.

Canada’s history of exploiting its natural resources for economic gain has evolved over time. Many positive changes have been made as a result of increased public awareness. While the fur trade once threatened to wipe out whole species of animals, endangered animals are now protected. Beavers, sea otters and many other endangered animals have made spectacular comebacks. Clear cutting forests have given way to sustainable management of the timber industry. Old growth forests are now protected. Many national and provincial parks have been created. Laws to reduce carbon emissions have been enacted. Water has been treated and cleaned.

Today, many challenges still remain, but many Canadians are now aware that the environment and the economy are inextricably linked. In the 1990s, when Newfoundland’s cod fishery collapsed, around 40,000 fishers and fish processors were put out of work. The dangers of unsustainable exploitation of Canada’s natural resources are generally understood and public support for sustainable development, minimized consumption and recycling are strong. Unless Canada plans for the long-term protection and management of its resources, the results will be dire.  In this, Canada is not alone. The global community of industrialized nations is struggling to address environmental concerns in ways that will not hurt job creation. Politicians in Canada have an opportunity to lead the world in this area, but they are still putting industry ahead of environment. For example, in 2006 when Stephen Harper was elected as Prime Minister, his Conservative government rejected many of the goals of the Kyoto Accord because of the risks posed to the economy. Later, in 2007, Canada rejected the implementation of revised proposals unless all countries agreed to them.

As a country with vast natural resources, Canada’s economy has benefited from globalization through its exports of coal, grain, minerals, oil and timber to countries like the United States, Japan and China. The Canadian economy depends on these key exports for much of its GDP. As history has shown, Canada has faced a number of environmental challenges in relation to the management of industry. As technology progresses, new environmental issues will arise. Historical patterns can help politicians make informed policy decisions as they deal with emerging issues such as genetically modified crops and oil sands production. The history of Canada’s exploitation and subsequent management of its environmental resources is of profound importance for regular citizens and policy makers alike. The challenge now for Canadians is to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the future.