Gimme Shelter!

A troubling realization that came out of the discussion ignited by my 1992 novel Centre/Center, at my most recent Travelling Book Café, was how Canada has changed since the 1970's when war objectors and even deserters from the U.S. armed forces were welcomed with kindness by the government and any number of open-hearted individuals who provided shelter, offered jobs, donated food and clothes, extended friendship.
     It was standing room only at the Gibsons Public Library late Saturday afternoon. I had invited three former U. S. War Objectors to join me at the front, and after introducing "the times" with a short reading from Centre/Center, which deals with the migration to Canada during the Vietnam war years, the men described their experiences. Dan Bouman, a former town councillor and head of the district conservation society, talked about how his decision to cross the border influenced his family in Michigan; how, despite criticism from a local church minister and a threatening call from the FBI, his army veteran father began to understand that Dan had made the right decision. He was welcomed and aided by the Quakers in Vancouver. He thought then and still thinks of Canada as a place of refuge. Ken Dalgleish, a popular piano player, remembered the various people who helped him along, from a California Induction Center doctor willing to believe that Ken had been suffering chronic headaches, to an immigration officer who told him: If you want to stay we'd like to welcome you. Dr. Michael Klein detailed his Ionesco-like exchanges with the military board and showed a film now mounted at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  In the film Klein describes how he and his wife were advised to cross from New York to Montreal at night when French Canadian border guards would be on duty, French Canadians having been historically opposed to conscription. There is also a sequence about the difficulty Iraq war resisters have experienced because nowadays, instead of welcoming immigrants for humanitarian reasons, the present government gives preferential treatment to entrepreneurs promising to invest in other businesses or open their own.  Meantime, war objectors like Rodney Watson have to seek sanctuary in churches to avoid being sent back to the U.S.  All three speakers had commented on Canada's traditional place in the world as a haven. Acknowledging the new reality produced a mixture of emotions and shame was a major component. So it wasn't just about nostalgia, all the talk, but living history that gives us an opportunity to consider how Canadian society has evolved.
     This Travelling Book Café confirmed that the Vietnam War era remains unfinished business for many who were touched by it. The time was too limited to allow all the audience members who had been involved as war objectors, or soldiers then veterans (as is one of the characters in C/C) to tell their stories. Those who did, including Dan Bouman, were grateful. "It's the first time I have ever talked about my experience in public and the first time anyone asked me to."
     There are clearly more to speak and to be heard. The Centre/Center Travelling Book Café hits the road in mid-February, willing to stop in interested communities along the way. Quebec and Ontario in late February, early March.

Huddled Masses Yearning....

Introducing the reforms he intends to make to immigration laws in the U.S., President Obama referred to the Statue of Liberty. "We didn't raise the Statue of Liberty with her back to the world," he said, reminding listeners of the pride with which the U.S. used to accept immigrants. But now, with the masses huddled along the southern border, or surging across it, not to mention those who arrived even decades ago and have been huddled somewhere outside the law, pride has turned to fear, to anger.
 Immigration is a problem for many first-world countries, especially at receiving locations where newcomers have to be processed, housed, given medical care. Political parties that favour stricter immigration laws are on the ascendance not only in the United States but also in Britain, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Italy struggles to deal with literal tides of Africans rolling in with the sea after perilous journeys. Nevertheless, war, gangs, tyrants local and national, withering poverty, and climate change refugees continue to replenish the stream of those who risk the very lives they are trying to better in boats, with the infamous coyotes, with gun toting vigilantes who take it upon themselves to patrol borders. You can't blame a person for wanting to improve his lot and the lot of his children, and in time, once the considerable tangles are sorted out, receiving countries are inevitably enriched. The language problems that plagued their parents are something the second generation - some of them stand-up comics - only joke about. You get your Apple Stores in which the only similar characteristics among staff are the red t-shirts with the white apples below faces of various skin shades and features: One old white guy, many young south and east Asians, a couple of blacks, a man who might be related to Mohammed Morsi. Nearby, across from the central branch of the Vancouver Library, whose collection includes books and journals in 16 languages - from Arabic to Vietnamese - there is a two-block stretch dominated by ethnic restaurants, including Ebi Ten Japanese fast food, SK Mediterranean Restaurant, Coco Noodle Express, Rolls Kitchen, Pasta and Pizza, Belgian Waffles, Creative Felafel, Orange Julius, Chopped Leaf offering rolls with southwest, Bankgok, Greek and Mexican fillings; also Japadog, Curry Fusion, Papa Beard Cream Puffs. And that's just one side of the street. While there has long been a TNT Market on the outskirts of a gentrifying Chinatown, with Chinese junk food and a huge seafood department, and teetering stacks of pre-wrapped sushi to go, there is now the H Market, with Japanese and other Asian specialities as well as cornflakes and ice cream and a well stocked produce department a block from the city's main intersection at Georgia and Granville Streets.
Immigrants en route to Italy.
     Typical Vancouver. In Canada, one out of five people are immigrants and the largest percentage comes from Asia, although 200 different ethnic origins were reported in the last census. To those who worry about a national identity when the population is composed of so many nationalities, it's a leap to accept that our diversity IS our identity. But the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who fostered Canada's multicultural policy during his time said,
     "National unity if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one's own individual identity; out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions. A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society which is based on fair play for all."
     And offers plenty of eating out choices. My daughter recently fantasized about living in a small town. She wants a quieter life, but doesn't think she can give up ethnic food. Funny how acceptance starts with taste. How the effects of immigration are something we often experience first by literally swallowing them.
     Two images from one day: The owner of the local Chinese restaurant, Ming, hand in front of her mouth, embarrassed as she struggles with the unfamiliar pronunciation of English words during a tutoring session. Later, I unwrap a new computer that also began its journey in China.

(From the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, second stanza)

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
- Emma Lazarus