Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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NAFTA arbitration can hurt communities

Local residents on Digby Neck used simple messaging to tell the story. Photo by Ruth Denton

(May 11, 2018)

It is a costly and unnecessary lesson, but the federal government’s unsuccessful challenge of a North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration ruling could not have come at a better time.

As we renegotiate — or just scrap — NAFTA, perhaps the government will accept what environmentalists have said all along: the current language allows Canada to be sued by companies for protecting our environment and preserving the communities where we live.

Bilcon, a Delaware company, may be awarded up to $500 million for failing, in the end, to explode a significant part of Nova Scotia and crush it into gravel, providing cheap roadbed material for New Jersey highways. The gravel would have been shipped across the right whale breeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, also destroying lucrative lobster and herring fisheries in the process and effectively rendering Digby Neck uninhabitable.

However the company tried to spin things, this was the project. Local politicians were “persuaded” this was a good idea; local people had visits from folks genially offering to buy land — and only after the fact did people realized these were actually agents for Bilcon, which (by the way) still owns much of the land in question.

You might wonder why Bilcon would bother to seek environmental approval for such a destructive project. I did, when I first heard about it — how could it ever be approved? — but this one strikes close to home. The quarry marine terminal would have been built on land my grandfather once owned and the communities slated for devastation included those where the descendants of my European ancestors have lived since the 1780s — and where relatives still do.

So, without support from either federal or provincial representatives, the local people protested when the implications of the project sank in. They had to fight hard to get a hearing, or to have their concerns heard. Some, such as my aunt — who was one of the leaders — were either threatened with lawsuits or were sued by Bilcon for amounts guaranteed to scare people into silence.

It didn’t work. Finally, with the support of large environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club and with public exposure from an article by Noah Richler in The Walrus, the rest of Canada realized that what was going to happen to Digby Neck could just as easily happen to them and to their own communities.

I fumed from a distance, watching events unfold — I still think a great slogan would have been “It’s Your Neck, Too,” superimposed on a picture of Digby Neck.

The locals were more prosaic, as signs reading “Stop the Quarry” proliferated from Digby to Briar Island.

Belatedly, and despite a feeble environmental-assessment process, the two levels of government (arguably after one election and faced with another) realized that continued support for the project would admit Canada’s resources — and its leaders — were for sale to the highest bidder.

Officially, the reason given was that an environmental review panel concluded the project was “not in keeping with community values.”

So, what were these “community values” that surprised everyone later in the process? What “community values” are now potentially going to cost all Canadians as much as $500 million?

Simply, to have a community at all. To preserve the country we have on loan from our children, the resources of land, water and air that are our heritage, resources that we have a responsibility to protect if we want to preserve a decent quality of life for ourselves and others into an environmentally-uncertain future.

This project should have been dismissed out of hand, right from the start. The fact it went far enough to result in a NAFTA arbitration hearing shows our environmental-assessment rules were (and still are) laughably weak.

When Canadians are confronted with the kind of corporate greed that allows others elsewhere to profit from the misery of the people who live where the damage is done, we need to demonstrate that while this might work in other places, it does not work here.

Or, at least, not at the moment. I am concerned that the blatant disregard for similar “community values” reflected in pipeline decisions shows the federal government still has moral lessons to learn.

I worry that it will trade away Digby Neck, after all, to dodge the NAFTA ruling.

But those communities whose values were finally respected were originally created by people who knew that loyalty and respect come at a price. They were United Empire Loyalists, who lost everything because of the American revolution.

Faced with the same thing happening 200 years later, their descendants were not going to let it happen again. Nor should we.

Peter Denton is a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who settled in the communities of Little River, White Cove and Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia.

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The Gift

Looking out toward the Ngong Hills, where Karen Blixen began to write Out of Africa

Sitting at the millstone table where Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa, I looked out at the Ngong Hills she loved, hazy in the distance.

I saw the movie in 1985, before I read the book. Africa had always been an exotic National Geographic place, far removed from my experience growing up on the flat Manitoba prairie.

Yet her stories somehow struck a deep chord in me.

We say writing is a gift, as though it is a personality trait. The real gift lies in what is written, offered freely to an invisible audience scattered across time and space.

Unlike the probabilities that otherwise shape our lives, there is no calculation to a gift – how could there be? A true gift is unexpected, unpredicted, something that appears out of nowhere.

It may only be accepted – a dangerous thing to do, because accepting a gift creates a new relationship, bursting with unpredictable possibilities.

When it comes to writing, the ideas shared between author and reader for the first time are just as full of such possibilities.

Fast-forward several decades after reading Blixen’s book. Having taught students for years that individuals can change the world by their choices, I made one myself: I wrote my own book, on sustainability.

It should have been called Into Africa, because twelve months to the day after I got the publisher’s offer in 2012, I was in Nairobi having a private conversation with the President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – from Sudan – to whom I had given a copy. We talked about UNEP’s role in caring for the planet on behalf of the United Nations, Muslim-Christian relations – and my book.

It deals with how a gift changes everything by the unexpected possibilities it creates. The book certainly did this for me, because its publication led to my election in Washington, DC, as a civil society representative to UNEP. Weeks later, I was on a plane to UNEP’s annual global meeting at its headquarters in Kenya.

It was a whirlwind time for me in Nairobi, working together with other civil society representatives to influence government delegates, from countries all around the world, to make better decisions about our environment.

I contributed through writing, helping various people to express their thoughts and feelings more effectively in English, the main UN language. Extraordinary possibilities for friendship and collaboration appeared with every gift of my words they accepted.

My family pushed me to get out of Nairobi afterward and see something else of Africa. With only 36 hours before my flight home, I reluctantly accepted their gift and left the city (and the Ngong Hills) far behind.

I flew over the Great Rift Valley (where we are told all human life began) and into the Maasai Mara. After one brief vehicle safari late afternoon, there was dinner and then the generator-driven lights were extinguished at sunset.

There was little sleep for me, though. The resort was next to the Mara River, right where a pod of some 70 hippos submerged during the day, coming out to graze by the cabins all through the night. The double-ended flatulence of so many hippos together was truly amazing – and deafening!

Bleary-eyed, I greeted the sunrise on safari, breathing crisp highland cold air that grew into driving heat by mid-day. The animals practically lined up for pictures and, after breakfast, I went on a walking safari across the savannah. Following a hippo track, my Maasai guards focused me on the small things along the path – a wild beehive, droppings from different animals (hyena droppings are white, by the way), plants used for medicines, and stories of drought among the Maasai and their cattle who lived up into the surrounding hills.

There was time for one last meal, at lunchtime, before packing my bags and taking a roundabout trip to the airstrip, where I would catch the light plane back to Wilson Airport in Nairobi and then make it (barely) to the international airport.

With no guests around, I was able to talk to the young Maasai man who was my waiter. His name was Joshua, and as the conversation grew, I learned a little about him and his community up in the Loita Hills. He asked me why I was in Kenya – few people paid the price for a trip to the Mara and spent only one night – so I told him about my book and what it meant.

I was astonished and humbled by how quickly he grasped the idea of the Gift and the possibilities it meant for relationships, so I gave him my last (battered) copy.

He told me then about his dream, how he wanted to bring the gift of water to his community. The women had to walk kilometres each day to bring back dirty water from holes in the ground – water shared with livestock and wild animal – and in a drought this made life precarious.

In the developing world, everything revolves around water. Without a clean and local source, there is never enough that is safe to drink. The women spend their days carrying water instead of going to school, tending gardens, or contributing to the family income.

He dreamed of what a well and clean water would mean – and when I found out what it would cost, I made a promise I did not know how to keep. Somehow, I said, we will find a way.

Looking out over the Maasai Mara earlier that morning, as the sun rose in the sky to light my way home to Manitoba, I had said under my breath: “I will be back – I don’t know how, or when, but I will be back.”

There have been five trips since – and two more books.

At home in Winnipeg, I kept in touch with Joshua by Facebook, though he had to climb a hill in Kisokon to get cell reception. I told anyone who would listen the story of Joshua’s Well – of his dream, of the importance of the Gift and the possibilities it releases, creating a pathway to a sustainable future for us all.

Within a few months, I had raised enough money. The next spring, I travelled into the Kenyan hills I have come to love, the Loita Hills, to meet Joshua’s people and sign an agreement between the communities involved.

The day the papers were signed – by younger women, too, who pushed their way to the table to sign with the older male elders – I was given a shirt, red for Maasai and green for the environment, hand-sewn by Joshua’s wife, Patricia. On the back was embroidered the title of my book.

It was a precious gift (though it made me look like a pudgy Christmas elf!). The shirt was accompanied by a Maasai name, offered spontaneously by people in the crowd: Olomunyak, which caused some consternation and much laughter. Someone politely translated it as “blessed one,” but I guessed its true meaning among the Maasai, who have a wicked sense of humour: Clearly not a normal person, I had somehow been “touched by the gods” – and had the shirt to prove it.

In the Loita Hills, with the book that started the journey

Today, however, three villages close to Joshua’s now share a hand-dug well, the first successful development project in that remote area, with biosand filters installed in as many huts as we could afford. Throughout a bad drought this year, about 450 women a day have been pumping clean water for their families.

His village is next, with hopes for a borehole well in a school compound, where children can also learn how to grow the foods they need to supplement a traditional Maasai diet based on the herd animals that suffer most from the drought. We are enabling small-scale community development, across all the barriers thrown up by language, culture, religion, politics, history and distance – and I have held my godson as a reminder of why that needs to continue.

I was honoured in two communities as an elder among the Maasai, learned that choosing a roadside “toilet tree” could be a lethal decision in black mamba territory, opened my tent flap to see Mount Kilimanjaro rise in front of me in the morning sun, and walked parts of the Loita Hills that tourists simply don’t visit.

I have looked into the eyes of wild animals and seen what our generation will cost the Earth, if we do not live differently and those animals disappear. I have sat with children whose parents make unthinkable sacrifices for their education in a place where schools are named “Osiligi,” which means “hope,” and wished I could do more. I have held the dry red earth and talked about what to do when the rains come, to protect against the drought that frequently seems to follow these days.

Throughout, I have experienced the generosity of friendship, of acceptance, not as a bringer of gifts, but as a strange cousin – Olomunyak – from elsewhere.

Scuffing the dirt with my boots in the middle of the Great Rift Valley on my last trip, it felt, finally, that I had come home.

This time, I could make no silent promise to return. While I don’t know what other doors might yet be opened, age and circumstance limit the gifts any of us have the opportunity to give.

But the farewells I received – from the Loita Hills to Nairobi – were the kind one offers to family who simply expect to see you again, out of affection for who you are, not for what you carry.

In a world where relationships of all kinds are threatened by fear, by difference and suffering, we are one in heart together, separated only by the mereness of space.

Four years ago on the UN campus in Nairobi, two friends forced a bracelet over my hand and onto my wrist. Intricately beaded, it was a birthday gift from Lucy, an indigenous Kenyan colleague, who remarked as they struggled, “I got mine three years ago and it hasn’t been off since.”

Apart from two stints in hospital, neither has mine. It marked the beginning of a relationship with the Africa that caught my imagination and overwhelmed my heart, just as Karen Blixen wrote how it happened to her 80 years ago.

That bracelet still looks out of place on my wrist as I teach my classes. Another one, from the women at the Murja well, joined it this past June.

They are physical reminders to me of the new, unexpected relationships that may be created simply by choosing to give or to accept a gift.

I have learned we should never underestimate the power of our words or how far they might travel. When two people are joined by the gift of the words they share, time and space disappear.

In a universe of relations, woven together by gifts, anything then becomes possible.

* * * * * * *

(submitted to the 2017 CBC non-fiction competition…finally got me writing again, even if it did not make the long list!)