Monday, 17 April 2017

An Act of Mercy Finds its Karma Years Later in I Who Did Not Die

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because it is a moving example of how the refusal to cross a line during the Iran-Iraq war  had a hugely positive effect for two people.

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, authors of  I Who Did Not Die.


“When I crashed back to earth, I had no more faith in anything. I didn’t believe in God, in humanity, or in war. There was no time for such devotions, as blood seeped from my forehead and chest, and all around me men were being executed as they begged for their lives. There was only one truth left: I was going to rot in a mass grave with hundreds of other forgotten soldiers…. I opened my eyes and saw a child soldier pointing a rifle at my temple. He was so small that he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs of his uniform. The boy had been brainwashed to hate me. I spoke as softly as I could. ‘Please,’ I said ‘I’m… just like you.” 
- Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
It is rare that I would cite such a long passage from a book as an epigraph, especially when it is on the back of the dust jacket. But this description from I Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, and the Iranian, Zahed Haftlang, with the assistance of journalist Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017), is possibly the seminal moment in this astonishing alternating-narrative memoir about the horror of the Iraq-Iran war and its aftermath. Iraqi forces had seized the Iranian city of Khorramshahr and committed ghastly atrocities, killing all the men and raping the women. In 1982, Iran retook the city and came close to annihilating the Iraqis. Najah was almost one of them as he crawls into a bunker to die, but Zahed’s intervention dramatically altered the lives of both men.

In what follows the words quoted above, Najah slowly removes the Koran from his breast pocket; Zahed grabs it and pages through it and finds a photo of a beautiful woman and a baby. It is not the Koran that makes the difference and saves his life: it is the photo that for Zahed defines Najah’s humanity. Instead of following orders to execute all Iraqis, including the severely wounded Najah, Zahed feeds him water, injects a pain killer and bandages him up, admonishing him to be very quiet while he looks for a way to hook up an IV drip, before assuring, at considerable risk to himself, that Najah is transported to a medical tent and a doctor who will attend to him. He follows that up with a hospital visit where, despite their inability to communicate in each other’s language, their body language and emotions more than compensate. Najah will not forget the “angel” who saved his life even though, as Zahed departs, neither expects to see each other again

This episode is a powerful expression of the better angels of our nature, a bolt of light in the ghastly Iran-Iraq war. Had they encountered each other under similar circumstances a year later, after Zahed suffered the tragedy of losing the two most important people in his life and was bent on revenge, Nahjah’s fate would likely have been very different. As it was, however, Zahed was thirteen when he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary, running away from a home where his father repeatedly beat him. When he and the other child soldiers were used as human minesweepers to clear the fields for the armed Revolutionary Guards, he balked and saved himself by training as a medic. The fact that he hadn't killed before – there is sufficient evidence that the first kill is the most difficult and combatants initially resist it – and didn't want to kill because of the guilt that he was afraid would forever haunt him also helped Zahed to make his decision to spare Najah’s life. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

A German Family that Refused to Conform: Joachim Fest’s Not I

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large appears on this site because the memoir is about a family  that refused to cross a dark line during the Third Reich.

The Fest family: (from left, back row) Winfried, Hannif, Wolfgang, and Joachim and (front row) Elisabeth, Christa, and Johannes.

“One sometimes had to keep one’s head down, but try to not look shorter as a result!” 
“They [Germans] have lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” 
 Johannes Fest, father of Joachim Fest, from Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood
Throughout his professional career, first as a radio journalist and later as an historian and as a biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer, Joachim Fest was haunted by the question: how did Germany, a country almost obsessed with culture, descend into Nazi barbarity? In his final and most personal work before his death in 2006, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood (Other Press, 2014), Fest explores the reverse question: how was it possible that his family maintained its moral bearings and did not succumb to the mass hysteria engulfing the country? The answer starts with his uncompromising father, who is, at least in the first half of the book, the central figure of this remarkable memoir that tracks the author’s life into young adulthood. Fest, the son, takes his title from his devout Catholic, proudly Prussian, father, whose inspiration is derived from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Even if all others do, not I.” The author pays tribute to his father (and mother) by serving up a memorable tale of courage and stoic endurance of “the revolting Nazi period” reminding us that simple human decency is possible even during an oppressive tyranny.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Electioneering at the Vatican: Robert Harris’ Conclave

The reason for including this review, that originally appeared in Critics at Large, on this site I cannot explain as it would give too much away, except that transgressions occur, the most surprising occurs near the end of the book.

Author Robert Harris. (Photo: Karen Robinson)

"Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them."
– Robert Harris, Imperium
As a former political reporter, Robert Harris has considerable knowledge of the corridors of power and an understanding about the frailties and flaws of those who exercise it. He brings those qualities, along with a passion for detailed accuracy and compelling plots, to his historical and contemporary political thrillers. One only has to think of Ghost Writer and its film adaptation Ghost, Harris’ thinly-veiled, withering portrait of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; An Officer and a Spy, whose protagonist, Georges Picquart, was the French officer who initially fingered the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus, but whose investigation convinced him that an injustice had occurred thereby invoking the wrath of his superiors; or The Fear Index whose protagonist, Alex Hoffman, a mathematics nerd who runs a vastly successful algorithmic hedge fund, whose vulnerabilities set him up for a financial and emotional crash. Harris' latest foray, Conclave (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is an engaging investigation into the political machinations and personal liabilities of those seeking the Keys of St. Peter when the Catholic cardinals assemble to elect a new Pope at Vatican City.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Ryerson Session Eight: The Politics of Hope in the era of Obama and Trudeau














"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
     —President –Elect Barack Obama, November 4, 2008e

"If you cannot see the potential in people around you, it’s impossible to rouse them to great things.”
Justin Trudeau, Common Ground

“Obama’ s presidency is a model of what pragmatic and liberal Americans ought to believe in, how they can achieve it, and a standard around which they can rally in the dark years that lie ahead.”

Jonathan Chait, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied his Critics and Created a Legacy that will Prevail, 2017


"Whether you have approved of the Obama presidency as a matter of policy or not, it is impossible to argue that Obama was not a man of principle. Whether you agree with individual decisions or the content of his rhetoric, it is impossible to argue that he did not conduct himself with dignity and respect and that he did not lead the country with those values as a guiding light.

I have not always agreed with the president’s positions or tactics, and this feels normal to me. Freethinking people are bound to disagree occasionally, even if a vast majority of their values align."

Charles Blow, New York Times, January 11, 2017


Canada admitted 321,000 immigrants in the year to June 2016, nearly 1% of its population; typically 80% of them will become citizens. It is contemplating an increase to 450,000 by 2021. A fifth of Canada’s population is foreign-born, nearly twice the share in America.

The warmth of the welcome is as striking as the scale of the intake. Immigrants are encouraged to keep their cultures. Winnipeg’s public schools have classes taught in Spanish and Ukrainian as well as French and Cree. Its Central Mosque is a few blocks down Ellice Avenue from the Hindu Society of Manitoba. The Juliana Pizza & Restaurant serves its “Greek/Jamaican food” just a bit farther on.
Canada’s openness is not new, but it is suddenly getting global attention. It is a happy contrast to what is happening in other rich countries, where anger about immigration helped bring about Britain’s vote for Brexit, Donald Trump’s nomination and the rise of populist parties across Europe. And it has an appealing new face: Justin Trudeau celebrates his first anniversary as prime minister on November 4th. Mr Trudeau comes from Canada’s establishment—he is the son of a former prime minister—but is not despised for it. A former high-school teacher and snowboarding instructor, his cheeriness played a large part in the Liberal Party’s victory over Stephen Harper, a dour Conservative who had governed Canada for almost ten years."
October, 29, 2016, “Canada the Last Liberals”



 things.”


"Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip and an advocate for First Nations people, was honoured at the Assembly of First Nations gathering Tuesday for his work highlighting the impact of residential schools.

Downie's most recent project, Secret Path, tells the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 trying to escape from a residential school near Kenora, Ont. An excerpt of the documentary film was played for the chiefs assembled in Gatineau, Que.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde presented the visibly emotional Downie with an eagle feather — a gift from the creator above — and he was given a Lakota spirit name, Wicapi Omani, which can be roughly translated as "Man who walks among the stars."
Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia Regional Chief Morley Googoo said Downie was a living embodiment of the push to reconcile relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

An emotional Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watched as Downie was showered with song and wrapped in a "star blanket."

"Soon, in a few days, a couple of weeks, there's 150 years that Canada wants to celebrate, and I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country, celebrate the next 150 years. It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school," Downie said after receiving the blanket.

"To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever. This is the first day of forever: the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives. Thank you."

Chiefs from across the country brought presents to Downie, but were asked to not present them to him personally due to health concerns as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer."





Divided, Canada stands to lose what makes it great
NAHEED NENSHI
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 16, 2015
(A selection from a talk given by Nenshi)

"Let it be said: Such failures to become the Canada we hope for aren’t only recent. Far from it. After all, we are the nation that turned back Indian Sikh refugees on the ship Komagata Maru in 1914, the nation of the Chinese head tax, the nation of Japanese internment camps and the “None is too many” policy. We are the nation of provincial eugenics programs and generations of residential schools.
These, sadly, are also our origin stories. Many of us feel a deep, dark discomfort when confronted with them. The truth is not easy. It wasn’t easy for the victims of residential schools to tell their stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it wasn’t easy for Canadians to bear witness to those truths. But it is important that we did then, and that we are doing so with the dark truths we see now.

The real answer to crafting the Canada we aspire to build lies in engaging muscularly with both the past and the future. It means undertaking a thousand simple acts of service and a million tiny acts of heroism. It means acting at the community level: on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, and in our schools. It means refusing to accept the politics of fear.

And then it means exporting the very best of Canada, that ideal and real Canada, to the rest of the world. Yes, I’m naive to believe we still have something special to share. In my city, we have a program, 3 Things for Calgary, that challenges every citizen to take at least three actions, large or small, using their own passions and resources, to make their community better. Let us start 3 Things for Canada and dare each other to take actions that will build our local, national, and global communities with our true, aspirational Canadian values.

One final story. I had the chance a couple of years ago to visit a school in Calgary on its 100th anniversary. It’s called Connaught School, named after the Duke of Connaught – the governor-general of Canada, a son of Queen Victoria. Because it is right downtown, Connaught School is often the first point of arrival for newcomers. In all, 240 students are enrolled; they come from 61 countries and speak 42 languages at home.

I chatted with some of those kids and their parents. Many of the things I heard were horrible: stories of war, of poverty, of degradation. I heard stories of violence so horrific I could not imagine one human being doing that to another, let alone in front of a child.
Then I looked out at those kids, sitting on the floor in the gym, wearing their matching T-shirts. And I looked at their parents, in hijabs and kanga cloth, in Tim Hortons uniforms and bus-driver caps, in designer suits and pumps.

All at once, I knew something to be true above all else. Regardless of what these kids had been through, of how little they have or had, of what wrath some vengeful God had visited on them and their families, they’d had one burst of extraordinary good fortune – they ended up in Canada, in Calgary, at the Connaught School. They ended up in a community that wants them to succeed, that has a stake in them – that cares about them, and will make sure they don’t fail."

And I knew that those kids would have a chance to live great lives. That’s the promise of Canada.
Adapted from an address given at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s 13th LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium, in Stratford, Ont. in September.


Kent Monkman

From a column by Robert Everett-Green, Globe and Mail, January 7th, 2017
“In Kent Monkman’s studio in west Toronto, there’s a large painting based on Robert Harris’s famous group portrait of the Fathers of Confederation. The delegates at the Charlottetown constitutional meetings of 1864 stand or sit in their accustomed places, but in the foreground, a nude figure lounges before the conference table, under the eyes of John A. Macdonald. It’s Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Mr. Monkman’s alter ego.

“She’s trying to get a seat at the table, or she could be a hired entertainer,” said the prominent painter of Cree ancestry, whose works have been collected by major museums such as the National Gallery of Canada, the Glenbow Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Miss Chief is definitely sending up the self-conscious gravity of the delegates and imposing an indigenous presence on negotiations that scarcely acknowledged the aboriginal inhabitants of the territories under discussion.

The inclusion of Miss Chief in a founding image of Confederation is a characteristic move by the 51-year-old Mr. Monkman, whose work constantly messes with accepted visual codes. You approach one of his large-scale paintings imagining that you’re looking at something familiar, but closer inspection reveals all kinds of transgressive narratives. He seems to be mocking painting modes of the past, but is also, paradoxically, enamoured of them.”
 

Learning Unlimited Session Ten: The Politics of Hope during the Obama and Trudeau eras















"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
     —President –Elect Barack Obama, November 4, 2008e

"If you cannot see the potential in people around you, it’s impossible to rouse them to great things.”
Justin Trudeau, Common Ground

“Obama’ s presidency is a model of what pragmatic and liberal Americans ought to believe in, how they can achieve it, and a standard around which they can rally in the dark years that lie ahead.”

Jonathan Chait, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied his Critics and Created a Legacy that will Prevail, 2017


"Whether you have approved of the Obama presidency as a matter of policy or not, it is impossible to argue that Obama was not a man of principle. Whether you agree with individual decisions or the content of his rhetoric, it is impossible to argue that he did not conduct himself with dignity and respect and that he did not lead the country with those values as a guiding light.

I have not always agreed with the president’s positions or tactics, and this feels normal to me. Freethinking people are bound to disagree occasionally, even if a vast majority of their values align."

Charles Blow, New York Times, January 11, 2017


Canada admitted 321,000 immigrants in the year to June 2016, nearly 1% of its population; typically 80% of them will become citizens. It is contemplating an increase to 450,000 by 2021. A fifth of Canada’s population is foreign-born, nearly twice the share in America.

The warmth of the welcome is as striking as the scale of the intake. Immigrants are encouraged to keep their cultures. Winnipeg’s public schools have classes taught in Spanish and Ukrainian as well as French and Cree. Its Central Mosque is a few blocks down Ellice Avenue from the Hindu Society of Manitoba. The Juliana Pizza & Restaurant serves its “Greek/Jamaican food” just a bit farther on.
Canada’s openness is not new, but it is suddenly getting global attention. It is a happy contrast to what is happening in other rich countries, where anger about immigration helped bring about Britain’s vote for Brexit, Donald Trump’s nomination and the rise of populist parties across Europe. And it has an appealing new face: Justin Trudeau celebrates his first anniversary as prime minister on November 4th. Mr Trudeau comes from Canada’s establishment—he is the son of a former prime minister—but is not despised for it. A former high-school teacher and snowboarding instructor, his cheeriness played a large part in the Liberal Party’s victory over Stephen Harper, a dour Conservative who had governed Canada for almost ten years."
October, 29, 2016, “Canada the Last Liberals”



Canadians, who have demonstrated courage, creativity or leadership, and the better angels of our nature
Irshad Manji
Muslims Must Admit We Have A Problem. June 7, 6



[Mr. Pierre Trudeau] basically said national unity must be founded in one’s own confidence in one’s individual identity and from that you can begin to engage with others about their assumptions and attitudes and aspirations. We don’t have that kind of multiculturalism today, in my view. What we have is more a fear of engaging based very much on feeling intimidated that I’m going to say something wrong or that somebody is going to be offended. The assumption is made routinely that multiculturalism and diversity are the same thing. And I’d argue that they’re not at all the same thing. Diversity is more than your skin colour or my gender or someone else’s religion. Diversity also means differences of thought, of points of view, of opinions. Different points of view will naturally offend different people. I would argue that offence is the price of honest diversity.

Where is the line between offending someone in a way you think is constructive and then going to the point of discrimination?

We should educate the next generation to liberate their thinking and to express it in a way like this: “I’ve got a question for you. … Now, I’m asking, not assuming” and then launch in to the question. Or, “I realize that what I’m about to ask you could come off as uncomfortable so please know that you’re totally entitled to ask me anything, too.” Here’s the thing: I’m engaging with you because I see you as my equal, I see you as my peer. If I’m avoiding asking you searching questions, then, frankly, implicitly, I’m treating you like a child, because I think you’re somehow going to melt under the spotlight of my scrutiny. To me, that is not respect, that is disrespect.

Since your first book came out, have you seen an evolution in the way people respond to your views?

Absolutely. I have seen that people who would otherwise want to hurl vitriol or abuse, not only has that diminished, but better still, it’s been replaced – not with silence, but with more people now piping up and saying that we ask these questions. People get tired of constantly fighting you. Last year, I did an hour-long debate on Al-Jazeera International about whether there is indeed trouble with Islam today. Naturally the usual hate mail came in – and more love bombs came in. But here’s the real point: not a single death threat.
From a Globe and Mail interview March 7, 2014

Omar Khadr


From a review by John Doyle in the Globe and Mail, "You aren't informed on Omar Khadr until you see this film," December 2, 2015

"Omar Khadr: Out of the Shadows is a shorter version of the film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival as Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr. It has also played at other festivals and won awards. Directed by Patrick Reed, the co-director is Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, who wrote the book Guantanamo’s Child.

The doc has formidable restraint, very carefully presenting views about Khadr, his actions and his treatment in Guantanamo and by the Harper government. In the middle is Khadr himself. Once seen and heard, he is not the elusive figure on whom so many people projected so much. He’s just there, talking, remembering. This is when you can reach for a valid judgment.

We hardly need reminding, but the facts of his case are relevant. He was a grade-school kid when his father moved the family to Afghanistan. When the United States and others invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he was convicted of murder for throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Army medic. Then came a decade at Guantanamo, torture and interrogation, and eventual transfer to a Canadian maximum-security prison in 2012, later to a medium-security prison. He was released on bail earlier this year.

In the doc, we first see a lot of the news coverage about his release. The point is to underline the controversy that has surrounded Khadr for so very long. Then we hear Khadr say, “Each person is capable of doing great harm or great good.” And someone else shouts, “He is a murderer, he is a terrorist!”

His lawyer, Dennis Edney, a colourful character worth meeting, says on the day of his client’s possible release, “I have a lot of trepidation.

“It’s not only Omar Khadr that gets released. I need to be released.” Edney’s wife cries, overcome by her husband’s words. “This has been one long haul,” she says.
Asked what he has to say to then-prime minister Stephen Harper Dennis Edney says, bluntly, “Mr. Harper is a bigot. He wants to prove he’s tough on crime, so who does he pick on? A 15-year-old boy.” Khadr himself says of Harper, “I’m going to have to disappoint him. I’m better than the person he thinks I am.”

The prisoner’s status as a 15-year-old then becomes the focus. We are taken carefully through the events in Afghanistan that led to the battle and his arrest, both from Khadr’s perspective and that of an American officer who was there. The officer, too, breaks down. He’s thinking about the comrades he lost.

The torture and interrogation in Guantanamo is described. Vividly, and be warned, you can be disturbed by it. A fellow prisoner says, “He looked like an autopsy had been performed on him while he was alive.”

The interviews with Khadr himself are unnerving. The calmness. The acknowledgment that, under the calm, there is something haunting him: “It’s gonna take some time to ease up. One of those days, I’m just going to crawl under the bed and cry my eyes out.”

Yes, there is a positivity in Khadr’s outlook, which is utterly remarkable. That is, in part, down to him, his slow coming to terms with what happened to him and others. But the documentary suggests that an extraordinary role was played by Edney, whose advocacy was unstinting. He is now a father-like figure to Khadr. It is up to viewers to discern Khadr’s true feelings. But it does seem that he is fully, terribly aware of what he did when he was, essentially, a child soldier. Now, as an adult, it is the promise of a peaceful life that anchors him.

On his release months ago, as we see and hear in the doc, Edney said to reporters, “Omar Khadr is not going to have a lengthy conversation with you. He has never been out. He has never smelled the fresh air or seen the trees. I am going to go slow with him. But he needs to address the Canadian public.”

Here he does, and now, when you watch this, you can have an informed opinion."


the to great things.”


"Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip and an advocate for First Nations people, was honoured at the Assembly of First Nations gathering Tuesday for his work highlighting the impact of residential schools.

Downie's most recent project, Secret Path, tells the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 trying to escape from a residential school near Kenora, Ont. An excerpt of the documentary film was played for the chiefs assembled in Gatineau, Que.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde presented the visibly emotional Downie with an eagle feather — a gift from the creator above — and he was given a Lakota spirit name, Wicapi Omani, which can be roughly translated as "Man who walks among the stars."
Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia Regional Chief Morley Googoo said Downie was a living embodiment of the push to reconcile relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

An emotional Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watched as Downie was showered with song and wrapped in a "star blanket."

"Soon, in a few days, a couple of weeks, there's 150 years that Canada wants to celebrate, and I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country, celebrate the next 150 years. It will take 150 years or seven generations to heal the wound of the residential school," Downie said after receiving the blanket.

"To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever. This is the first day of forever: the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives. Thank you."

Chiefs from across the country brought presents to Downie, but were asked to not present them to him personally due to health concerns as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer."





Divided, Canada stands to lose what makes it great
NAHEED NENSHI
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 16, 2015
(A selection from a talk given by Nenshi)

"Let it be said: Such failures to become the Canada we hope for aren’t only recent. Far from it. After all, we are the nation that turned back Indian Sikh refugees on the ship Komagata Maru in 1914, the nation of the Chinese head tax, the nation of Japanese internment camps and the “None is too many” policy. We are the nation of provincial eugenics programs and generations of residential schools.
These, sadly, are also our origin stories. Many of us feel a deep, dark discomfort when confronted with them. The truth is not easy. It wasn’t easy for the victims of residential schools to tell their stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it wasn’t easy for Canadians to bear witness to those truths. But it is important that we did then, and that we are doing so with the dark truths we see now.

The real answer to crafting the Canada we aspire to build lies in engaging muscularly with both the past and the future. It means undertaking a thousand simple acts of service and a million tiny acts of heroism. It means acting at the community level: on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, and in our schools. It means refusing to accept the politics of fear.

And then it means exporting the very best of Canada, that ideal and real Canada, to the rest of the world. Yes, I’m naive to believe we still have something special to share. In my city, we have a program, 3 Things for Calgary, that challenges every citizen to take at least three actions, large or small, using their own passions and resources, to make their community better. Let us start 3 Things for Canada and dare each other to take actions that will build our local, national, and global communities with our true, aspirational Canadian values.

One final story. I had the chance a couple of years ago to visit a school in Calgary on its 100th anniversary. It’s called Connaught School, named after the Duke of Connaught – the governor-general of Canada, a son of Queen Victoria. Because it is right downtown, Connaught School is often the first point of arrival for newcomers. In all, 240 students are enrolled; they come from 61 countries and speak 42 languages at home.

I chatted with some of those kids and their parents. Many of the things I heard were horrible: stories of war, of poverty, of degradation. I heard stories of violence so horrific I could not imagine one human being doing that to another, let alone in front of a child.
Then I looked out at those kids, sitting on the floor in the gym, wearing their matching T-shirts. And I looked at their parents, in hijabs and kanga cloth, in Tim Hortons uniforms and bus-driver caps, in designer suits and pumps.

All at once, I knew something to be true above all else. Regardless of what these kids had been through, of how little they have or had, of what wrath some vengeful God had visited on them and their families, they’d had one burst of extraordinary good fortune – they ended up in Canada, in Calgary, at the Connaught School. They ended up in a community that wants them to succeed, that has a stake in them – that cares about them, and will make sure they don’t fail."

And I knew that those kids would have a chance to live great lives. That’s the promise of Canada.
Adapted from an address given at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s 13th LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium, in Stratford, Ont. in September.