At the edge of the airbase where I spent my teens in Lahr, Germany, there was a full size mirror just by the gate on which was printed the words:
“The person you see here is a reflection of Canada. Act accordingly.”
Every day I’d walk past that mirror on my way to and from high school and wonder, “What does it mean to act accordingly? Like a Canadian.”
I know that often my friends and I were louder than our German compatriots. Most of us didn’t speak German and would even make fun of those who couldn’t speak English.
I was fortunate. When we’d first moved there, my father was insistent that I attend a German school. I spent my first summer being tutored in German by Frau Klaus.
She and her husband were our landlords. Every afternoon I would walk down the stairs from our house at the top of Am Schiessrain, through our garden into theirs, past the cherry tree that cast its sheltering branches over the grape vines they’d planted in their back yard. I’d knock at the side door of their big stone house and wait for Frau Klaus to answer.
Their home was old. To my teenage mind it was ancient. It was on Friedhof Strasse, the long, winding street that lead up to the cemetery.
Herr Klaus was a stone mason. He made beautiful headstones to mark the graves of those who passed away. I loved to sit on the stone wall beside their house and watch him in his workshop. He’d show me the different marbles. The fillers he used to make the etchings he carved into the rock stand out. He’d talk about why he’d chosen one product over the other. Of the importance of honouring the dead, of always holding their memories close. I liked Herr Klaus. He was always kind and full of laughter and stories.
Frau Klaus scared me. She was stern and critical. If my skirt was too short she’d make me climb the stairs back through the garden and change. I was never allowed to wear jeans in her presence. “That is not how ladies dress,” she told me.
Once I climbed the cherry tree to see the view beyond their garden. She told me to get down. Ladies didn’t climb trees.
Frau Klaus was very particular about how I spoke her language. She would make me repeat, again and again, a certain sound, a gutteral noise so that I got the intonation just right. She taught me how to bow my head when I met my elders and say, Guten Tag, with just the right amount of reverence to demonstrate I deferred to their age.
Frau Klaus was proud of her language. Her heritage. Her home and native land.
She did not like foreigners very much, though ‘we Canadians’ were somewhat more acceptable than ‘those Americans’ or the woman who worked as their housekeeper. She came from the Ukraine. She had walked the thousands of miles after the war to get away from the Russians only to find herself in unwelcome territory years later, shunned for her foreign ways.
Frau Klaus told me it wasn’t ladylike to talk to the help but I loved to listen to the woman’s stories. I was in awe of her courage and bravery. Frau Klaus never spoke of the war, though sometimes her husband, after having had a few too many scotches with my father, would pull out a piece of war memorabilia he had stored in the back room of their house and throw it on the ground and stomp on it. “We were so wrong,” Herr Klaus would state. Frau Klaus would sigh and say, “We did what we had to do. It was the times.”
Frau Klaus liked my father a lot. She thought he was just like her. Stern and set in his ways and insistent we do things the ‘right way’. I think she liked my mother, though she sometimes wondered why my mother let me be the way I was. “It’s not her choice,” I would insist. “She doesn’t control me.”
“Well she should,” Frau Klaus would reply.
Frau Klaus believed I was too wild. Too carefree. Too unpredictable. She would shake her head in a resigned way whenever I’d mispronounce a word or get my tenses wrong and say, “Nein! Nein! Nien! Nochmal!”
And I would do it again and again if only to prove to her the thing she thought was true was false. “You Canadian girls are lazy,” she told me. “You don’t know what hardship is.”
In many ways, she was right.
We are not a land born from war. We are a country risen from an idea that together we are always stronger. We are a nation founded on the vision of creating a land where every language has a voice, where every person has the right to stand free.
We don’t always get it right the first time, but we keep working on it until we do. And while it may take a century to acknowledge our mistakes, when we do, we mean it because doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.
This is My Canada. We act accordingly.
She arrives via taxi at the door of “The Inn”* in the early morning hours. Her two year old in tow, another child due in six months. One hand grips her child’s hand. In the other she carries a few plastic bags of belongings. That’s all she has.
She came to Canada a couple of years ago when she married her husband. His brother knew her father. It was all arranged. He came to her village to make her his bride. He’d been in Canada for several years and wanted a wife from his country of origin.
She didn’t know him. She didn’t know what the future held. But she knew that to stay in the famine and discord of her homeland would mean an uncertain and terrifying future.
Since being here she has barely been let out of their home. She cannot speak English. She has no friends. No family. No support.
At first, she takes the beatings her husband regularly doles out as part of being here. But then, he threatens her child. She cannot stay and does what women the world over do, every day, every night. She flees to save her child.
At ‘The Inn”, staff quickly kick into gear to find a translator. To create a safety barrier between this woman and child and her husband who has arrived to take them home. Though she cannot speak English, her desires are clear. She will not go.
A translator is found via a phone service. Staff work with other agencies, government reps and the translator to build a path to safety for the woman.
The Inn is a family emergency shelter. It does not have the same level of security as a domestic violence shelter and staff are concerned the husband will return. The woman, through the translator, is adamant. She wants to stay.
A plan is created and space is found for her on the second floor with the 7 other women and their children who are already staying there.
For now, she is safe.
Unless, the government steps in. Because that’s her new challenge.
When she fled her abusive husband she also left the man who was her immigration sponsor. Without him, her immigration status is in jeopardy.
Again, staff work with the translation service to find help. Legal Guidance is called in. The lawyers go to work.
For now, she is safe. From abuse. From deportation.
For now, she is receiving support. Her child is being provided early childhood development coaching to mitigate against the effects of so much uncertainty, so much fear, and the abuse he witnessed in his father’s home.
It is imperative, this work. To ensure his young mind is not permanently scarred, that his healthy development from childhood to adulthood is not impaired by the trauma, he must be given tools and opportunities to find healthy ways to express his emotions and grow into a loving man.
His mother still lives in fear and uncertainty. Will she and her child be allowed to stay in Canada? Will she be forced to leave her Canadian born son behind with his father? What is the future?
Stories like this unfold many times a month at Inn from the Cold. Families arrive seeking shelter, sanctuary, healing. They come with their children clutching a toy, their hands full of their few belongings, sometimes several suitcases. They have run out of places to go that will let them stay for a night or two. They have run out of options. They need support. Help. Guidance.
Family homelessness is not a choice. It is an outcome of diverse and challenging circumstances that lead children and their parent, or parents, to the Inn’s door. They don’t want to be there but once there, they quickly discover a place where they can sit with their children at a dinner table and feed them healthy meals. They find a place where help for their children is readily available. Where they can obtain parenting and vital life skills that will help them navigate their current uncertain times into a more sustainable, livable future.
The goal is to move children and their families out of shelter into housing as quickly as possible. When the stars align, when the right housing, the right job, income and other supports can be put in place, it can happen quickly.
Sometimes, not being able to find the right housing or lack of access to income lengthens the journey.
At the Inn, family advocates and case managers work as a team to pave the way to all the pieces falling into place so that children can grow beyond the trauma of homelessness in a family space where love, kindness, caring and support create the pathway they deserve to a brighter future.
I am in my second month of being at Inn from the Cold.
I am blessed to be surrounded by so many passionate and committed people who see a future where family homelessness is no longer the reality for children and their families.
*To protect identity, this woman’s story is a combination of several stories.
This post is longer than usual. It is a short story/fable I wrote inspired by my #ShePersisted series.
Stirring the pot to stir up change.
A fable by Louise Gallagher
©2017 Louise Gallagher
Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to change the world. The world was a pretty big place which was kind of scary, so she kept doing the little things she knew she could do to make her own little world a better place.
One day, while walking to work at the Ivory Tower where every day she did what she was paid to do to keep the wheels of commerce turning, she met a man who asked for some loose change. “I’m hungry and have no money to buy a bowl of soup,” he told her.
“I’m not allowed to carry loose change,” she told him. “My bosses only like to deal in millions of dollars and it makes them nervous to hear the jingling of small coins.”
She wanted to do what she could to help him though and promised to meet him in the same spot the next day. “I’ll bring you a bowl of soup,” she told him.
And that’s what she did. The next day, and then the next and the next until one day, the man brought a friend to share in the bowl of soup. A few days later, a third man joined them and the number of people trying to share the one bowl of soup grew.
Eventually, the girl realized that one bowl of soup was not big enough to feed all the people who kept turning up. She decided to make a great big pot and bring it down to the street. And the people kept coming and she kept making soup until she realized, she had to do something different.
She didn’t feel a lot of satisfaction counting money and pushing paper. She decided to quit her job. There were so many people clamouring for her soup, she decided the time was now to find a space to make soup close to where the people were so nobody had to travel too far to fill their bellies.
The girl pooled all her money, posted a CrowdFund site on the internet and asked her friends for help. Everyone pitched in until she had enough to get a great big room with a great big kitchen in a building that stood all by itself on a side street near the great big Ivory Towers where once she’d worked.
Every day she’d go to her soup kitchen and make great big pots of soup to feed the people who kept turning up. They said it felt like home. They said, ‘Thank you’, and offered to help make the soup and serve it and clean up every day.
It worked well. Everyone contributed what they could and she felt good about what she was doing. So did her friends who’d helped raise the funds for her soup kitchen. They couldn’t always take time out from work to help her make soup, but they always made sure she had enough money to buy the ingredients she needed to make a wholesome meal for the people who needed it.
She was doing her bit to change the world, one bowl of soup at a time.
One night, just before the lights went out in her soup kitchen, the girl noticed a man curled up under a table sleeping. “You can’t sleep here. It’s against the rules,” she told him.
“Then where am I supposed to sleep?” the man asked.
“Why don’t you go home?”
He laughed and said, “I don’t have a home to go to.”
“Oh. What happened to your home?” she asked the man.
He told her the story of how his job was made redundant when a robot took over what he did. “I couldn’t afford the rent on my apartment ‘cause the boom kept pushing the cost higher. And I couldn’t find work because I never had a chance to finish high school after my dad died and I had to get a job to help my mother take care of my brothers and sisters.”
The girl was surprised by what had happened to him and started asking everyone who came to the soup kitchen if they had a home.
Lots of them didn’t.
She didn’t think that was right and decided to go see The Powers That Be to make them change the rules for her soup kitchen so the man, and all the others who came to eat soup and didn’t have a home to go to, could sleep on the floor at night.
She travelled to the Seat of Government and told the elected Powers That Be her big idea. The Powers That Be really liked it. They’d received lots of complaints from other citizens about the people without a home wandering the streets and asking strangers for money. The Powers That Be didn’t like complaints, especially when they piled up just before an election. The girl and her soup kitchen, that also had a floor to sleep on, was the answer to their prayers.
And so it went. Year after year. She kept changing the world with bowls of soup and a warm place for people to sleep on the floor at night.
And all around her, people kept going to work and businesses kept humming along as the wheels of commerce kept turning and the Ivory Towers kept growing taller.
One day, a man in a black silk suit looked way down at the street far below his eerie at the top of his Ivory Tower and noticed all the people lining up outside the girl’s soup kitchen. He called his assistant to his side and asked , “Do you know what dwelling that is yonder and why so many people are lining up outside its door?”
“Yes sire,” his assistant said. “It’s a soup kitchen.”
The man in the Ivory Tower had never heard of such a thing and called his cronies together from all the Ivory Towers around him to find out if anyone else had heard of a ‘soup kitchen’.
Nobody had. But one man, an economist, informed them that a soup kitchen fell into the fiscal category of Not Good for Business. “I understand from my assistant that it attracts people of dubious background. He tells me they are all poor.”
As one voice the gathering of men from the Ivory Towers rejected the idea of poor people on their streets. Poor people will bring down our credit ratings and the value of our realm, they declared.
Something had to be done.
They made a plan on how to conquer the problem of the people on the street. They would go see the Powers That Be, the ones they had elected into the Seat of Government. It was their job to take care of the poor people. They would force them to do it.
Together, as one voice, the men from the Ivory Towers went to the Seat of Government and demanded the Powers That Be fix the problem of the poor people on their streets. It’s Not Good for Business, they told them.
The Powers That Be told them that they needed to pay more taxes if they wanted to fix the problem because they did not have enough money to fix the problem..
The men in the Ivory Towers did not like that solution. They left the Seat of Government vowing to find a better way.
After lots of gathering and ruminating over their thoughts and much pounding of fists on tables and counting from on high the people lining their streets and number crunching and filling in the boxes of profit and loss, they determined that the girl and her soup kitchen was the root of the cause of the poor people on the streets. Without her, they wouldn’t be lining up for soup. She was The Problem.
Determined to wrestle the problem into submission, the men from the Ivory Towers gathered en masse to take matters into their own hands.
They donned their cashmere winter coats over their $3,000 silk suits. They entered their gilded elevators and rode down to street level. Their assistants scurried before them, stopping traffic so they could cross the street safely, sweeping aside the people asking for handouts and clearing the way to the building where the girl and her soup kitchen operated. As they walked towards its doors, their assistants used their bodies to shield their bosses from the people who stood in line, and one rushed forward to open the doors so that the men from the Ivory Towers could sweep into the soup kitchen like a covey of crows descending upon road kill.
A gust of cold air preceded them as they entered, but the room remained warm and cozy. The men in their cashmere coats did not notice it. They were on a mission. They marched as one body towards the girl who stood in front of a great big stove, stirring a great big pot of soup.
“Welcome,” she greeted them, smiling sweetly as they jostled for position in front of her. “If you would like a bowl of soup, you’ll have to wait your turn. It’s only fair. Others have been standing out in the cold much longer than you.”
“We don’t have time to stand around, and we definitely don’t need your soup,” they proclaimed, ignoring her suggestion they wait their turn. Their assistants busied themselves laying out upon the kitchen counter top the reams of paper they’d prepared with their pretty coloured graphs and balance sheets and profit and loss statements.
They pointed to the bottom line, “Look. Here’s the evidence. It doesn’t lie. Your soup kitchen is Not Good for Business. You run it. You are The Problem. Because you’re here, people are lining up outside your doors. They don’t look like us. They look poor and that’s not good. It’s not good for our businesses nor the people who make the wheels of our businesses turn. It makes our city look bad and it scares the tourists away. You have to stop making soup.”
The girl didn’t know much about balance sheets and profit margins, but she did know that what she was doing was changing the world, a bowl of soup at a time. She showed the men from the Ivory Towers the people sitting at the tables quietly eating their soup. “Who will feed all these hungry people if I stop?” she asked.
The men from the Ivory Towers looked around the room. They hadn’t noticed the people when they’d first entered on their mission to fix The Problem. Looking down their noses at the huddled masses, they were surprised to see how many people were gathered in the room, eating soup.
“These people are not contributing to the Greater Good,” the men from the Ivory Towers proclaimed. “All they’re doing is sitting around eating soup and bleeding our city dry.”
“They can’t contribute to the greater good if they’re always battling the greater issues of being poor,” she said as she slowly continued to stir a great big pot of soup.
The men from the Ivory Towers were not moved by her emotional appeal. It’s just a sob story, they muttered amongst themselves. She’s trying to sway us from the facts with her bleeding heart.
They pounded their fists on the closest table. “If their issue is being poor they need to get a job!” they told her.
“And how do they do that?” she asked, gripping the ladle in her hands a little bit tighter and moving it around the pot with a little more force. “You won’t hire them because they’re poor and even when you do, you don’t pay them a living wage because you’re always more concerned with balancing your bottom line.” She stopped stirring for a moment, looked each of them in the eyes before adding. “And without a job, how can they afford food on the tables they don’t have and a place to call home they can’t pay for?”
The men from the Ivory Towers were growing frustrated with the girl and her bleeding heart. “Be quiet and listen to us. We know what we’re doing,” they told her. “The problem isn’t whether or not these people have jobs. There’s lots of jobs around if they’re willing to work. The problem is you keep making soup and that keeps them coming back. You have to stop.”
“But isn’t that good business?” the girl asked, innocently enough, as she continued stirring the pot of soup at a more measured pace. “Don’t you call it supply and demand? I’m simply responding to their need for food and shelter. What are you doing?”
The men from the Ivory Towers puffed up their chests and huffed loudly through their noses. “We are keeping the wheels of commerce turning and building empires and taking care of the little people who keep our Ivory Towers growing higher.” And they pounded the closest table again, just to make their point.
“Please don’t pound the table,” the girl told them. “You’re scaring my guests.”
“Your guests are not our problem!” the men yelled loudly. “You and your soup kitchen are The Problem. You have to stop making soup so people will stop lining up on our streets and scaring people on their way to work.”
And the men from the Ivory Towers kept pounding on the table, telling her to stop.
And the people kept lining up for soup and a place to call home.
And the girl persisted. She kept stirring the pot and doing what she could to change the world.
The moral of the story is: You can’t change the world if you don’t stir the pot.
Growing up in Europe, whenever I told people I was Canadian the immediate response was, Oh American.
No, I’d insist. Canadian. We’re different.
But I could never really describe the difference very well. Back then, the gun culture prevalent in the states today didn’t seem as strong and the Canadian dollar was almost on par with the American. We wore similar styles of clothes, though it was often easy to pick out the American boys in Paris by their starched button-downed collars and crispy starched pinstripe shirts and their khaki pants. For those who hitch-hiked, bell-bottom blue jeans and flowers in your hair may have demonstrated you commitment to the era of free love, but no matter your nationality or style of dress, the Canadian flag was the one to wear on your backpack.
But what made me Canadian?
At that point in time, my only real connection to being Canadian was the fact I was born here. A first generation girl born to an Irish/English father and a EuroAsian mother from India.
My roots were not that deep.
But I was proud of my Canada, nonetheless.
I liked that we were considered peacekeepers. That we were not considered obnoxious to most Europeans, like our neighbours to the south.
I liked that being a holder of a British and a Canadian passport, I could travel to countries others couldn’t. And I liked the fact one Canadian dollar got me 5 Francs, 4 Deutsche-marks, and a whole whack of other currencies.
But that was then and this is now. In the intervening years, much has changed to devalue both the Canadian dollar and our reputation as peacekeepers in the world.
Canada in its current construct, turns 150 this July 1st.
Throughout this week, I’ll be exploring my take on my Canadian identity. I’m curious as to how you wear your Oh Canada?
I’d love it if you share yours in the comments below. What makes you Canadian. What make you sing, Oh Canada! Eh?
Namaste. And oh yeah. Vive Le Canada! Eh?
In South Africa it is called Ubuntu.
Here, where the fierce prairie winds are not strong enough to blow away the memories of colonization and the residential schools that did their best to rip cultural identity out of the child with such force the scars still seep from the trauma today, it is called, “All My Relations.” That place where who I am is because you are who you are and what happens to me impacts the we of who we are together.
Yesterday, I attended a ‘Listening Session” on off-reserve indigenous affordable housing. There were five of us at the round table where I sat. Three of us were non-Indigenous.
One of the questions asked for feedback on how to increase length of stay in housing for Indigenous people after being housed in an urban setting.
“Stop making us feel unwanted everywhere we go, where ever we live” said one man who came from a reserve many years ago and now leads an agency which provides housing for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people exiting homelessness. “Stop discrimination.”
A tall order. Stop discrimination.
Yet, when I see it through its simplest frame, it appears so sensible. So obvious. Stop discriminating against the things we do not understand, the people we do not know, the history we do not want to think about. Stop seeing the world as ‘us and them’ and see it as, “All My Relations.”
One of the other individuals at our table whose PhD made him the most highly educated amongst, us shared the story of how, as a teenager, holding his first pay cheque in hand, he went to the grocery store to cash it.
“I didn’t have a bank account and my mom always cashed her cheques there,” he shared.
When he asked if he could cash it the manager said, without glancing at the cheque but staring only at his brown face. “You’ve got a welfare cheque already?”
All My Relations.
We are not separate. We are the same kind of different. The same human condition appearing in all its manifestations.
On this day in a week focused on celebration of National Aboriginal Day, I check to see where my privilege has landed me and find myself once again in that space of humility.
No one has ever refused to rent to me because of the colour of my skin.
I have never been denied service in a restaurant because I represent an entire nation of people whose culture, history, ceremonies and language were destroyed by the privilege I carry.
No one has ever called me names as I walked down the street that are meant to malign my culture, my past, my people.
And no one has ever spit on me, kicked me or beat me up because I am ‘a dirty Indian’.
Yet it has happened to thousands of my neighbours. To the people who called this land home long before the white man came and planted their roots and claimed this land as their own.
And it keeps happening.
I don’t discriminate against those who are ‘different’ than me but when I do not speak up, when I do not stand with those who have been beaten down because they are Indigenous, I am perpetuating the trauma through my silence and lack of action.
I saw my privilege laid out before me on a round table yesterday.
It is not a pretty thing to see when cast in the light of the trauma and pain its presence causes others.
It is of no benefit to me or the world around me if I do not use it to create better for those for whom the privilege of being treated with dignity, respect, honour is denied because, even though their connection to this land is deeper than mine, the colour of their skin and the vibrancy of their culture, once made them ‘savages’.
Long before the white man came, this land was filled with hope and promise. It was filled with rich and vibrant culture, with ceremony and peace pipes and drums beating.
We cannot turn back time, but we can turn the page to find ourselves writing a different story of how we treat one another. How we build tolerance, compassion, understanding, truth and dignity into our world. We can write a new story where we acknowledge, All My Relations is made of each of us doing better, every day, to build a Canada that is good for everyone.
A friend (Thanks Nick Falvo!) sends me a link to a Tweet by Helen Clark, former leader of New Zealand.
It’s a catchy hashtag — #BadLuckCanComeToAnyone
But when it’s used in comparison to homelessness? It’s just not not true.
Homelessness isn’t caused by bad luck, unless of course you think it’s bad luck to be born into poverty, or suffer from untreated mental health issues or an addiction, or suffer from all sorts of aspects of the human condition for which there are no resources and little help.
Homelessness isn’t caused by bad luck, and it doesn’t come to ‘anyone’.
It arrives at your front door when there’s no other place to go. It arrives, unwanted, when you’ve run out of options and have no other alternative than to walk away from the one place you desperately tried to hold onto, but couldn’t because there were no social supports available to assist you when you desperately needed them.
Bad luck can happen for anyone, but homelessness happens to those for whom access to education, resources, supports, financial aid and social services are lacking.
It happens when cities grow and push people out of the areas where they could afford to live and push up the price of housing to a cost they can’t afford.
It happens to people who do not have the resilience to withstand environmental and economic disasters, to weather the storms of life and still find themselves standing at the end of the line looking for resources that don’t travel that far down the line.
It happens to people who have to make tough choices every day; do I put food on my table? Do I move because my landlord just jacked up my rent by $100 a month when I couldn’t afford it in the first place, but this is an expensive city and I won’t find anything cheaper anyway? Do I pay for insurance? Do I license my car which I need to get to work because there’s no bus service to the only job I can find? Do I risk a $250 ticket because I don’t have $3.25 to pay for the ride, but I have to file these papers to get the help I desperately need to keep a roof over my family’s heads? Do I buy the proper work boots to get a job or do I pay for my child’s school supplies? Do I pay for a course I desperately need to get a better paying job, or do I feed my family?
And yes, sometimes, the decision is to buy that next fix that will help you forget the dire straits, the stress and turmoil, the helplessness you feel living with poverty, anxiety, hopelessness.
But it’s not the addiction that causes homelessness.
It’s a result of the economic and emotional poverty that takes a toll. It beats down those for whom the lack of mental health supports, the stress of living with the constant strain of trying to stretch every cent to cover the days of the month, knowing there are more days than cents in every month, and keeps them trapped in poverty until there’s nowhere else to go but that place called, Homeless.
Homelessness is not bad luck.
People don’t ‘make’ a decision to be homeless or to be housed. They are forced into it because we make decisions as a society that result in people not being able to access housing they can afford, find help for their physical and mental health or attain a level of education that sustains them so they can weather life’s storms.
Homelessness is a symptom. It’s not the issue.
So yes, bad luck can come to anyone. Homelessness can’t, but it does, when we don’t ensure those living on the margins have access to the resources they need to climb out from the depths of poverty. A poverty we created through government policies and social frameworks that are not robust enough to support people who do not have the same good fortune as the privileged who were not born in poverty, or without mental health and physical issues they can’t afford to take care of.
Posing as homeless to raise awareness may help people shift their perceptions, but comparing homelessness to bad luck that can happen to anyone is not the answer.
We can end homelessness. But we, the collective, have to do things differently to make it happen. Let’s start with not calling homelessness ‘bad luck’.
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