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Québec’s Squeegee Kids (#365)

I had an interesting conversation the other evening.

A good friend of mine is an officer-level social worker in the Canadian military, for both the army and the air force.

Needless to say, he has an interesting perspective on life.  He has seen a range of issues which most of us could not even imagine.

Having myself lived in Lebanon from 2006 to 2008 when I was posted abroad with my former foreign service government job, I can sort of relate to some of the events he has to deal with on a daily basis.

Those two years in Lebanon included the Israeli air bombings of Beirut, two years of constant car bombings, and topped off with Hezbollah’s seizure of Beirut (this latter night-scene link was filmed not far from my house, and that’s how it sounded from inside the house… It was quite a night to remember, to say the least).

Part of the latter happened right outside of my front door with machine guns while I was at home, causing Lebanese friends to be trapped inside my house for a few days.  When one lawyer-friend down the street did try to get through the blockades to go home, he was gunned down in cold blood by Hezbollah supporters, only 2 blocks away from my door.  The week of May 8th, 2008 is one I will never forget.  This video was also filmed just down the street from my house.

It’s strange because this is perhaps only the second time I have spoken of this event in the past five years.  It’s rapidly becoming a very distant memory, which I suppose is a good thing.  But when I have returned to Lebanon on vacation to see friends from that period, there has always been a silent mutual understanding from having lived through this experience together – without having brought it up again.

All-in-all, after witnessing events similar to what our own military sometimes has to contend with, it gives me a lot of respect for Canada’s forces and their various intervention units.  I’ll leave it at that.

But maybe this also gives some perspective of why I sometimes write with a bit of a sarcastic streak when it comes to our politicians who make petty politics and cheap political shots on the Canadian and Québec home-front.  Petty politics and cheap political goal scoring, on so many levels, can demonstrate a lack of “big-picture perspective” on the part of our politicians (and even on the part of portions of the public who they are pandering to).

Some of the issues they endlessly squabble about, in the big picture, are so insignificant and unrelated to people’s lives.

So back to what happened with my friend who is a social-worker in the military, and what he just experienced — something which I believe is significant … …

The reason I mentioned the above is because my buddy deals with major crisis in the military, he is used to dealing with major and traumatic events, and he intervenes when he believes there is a major crisis which needs intervention (the above was an example of how major some of the events can be.  Soldiers witness these types of traumatic events regularly, and sometimes they carry they carry the emotional impact with them back to Canada.  In my case, I suppose I am lucky in that I never had any PTSD, I never had emotional trauma from my experiences, and I never needed to talk to anyone).

But as you”ll read below, my friend felt that Québec’s squeegee kids constituted a significantly large enough crisis which merited a small personal intervention and his attention on his own personal time.

He lives one of those types of 24/7 on-call jobs, never knowing when the phone will ring, and what sort of personal or professional crisis he may have to respond to.

Because of this, when he does have down-time, he tries his best to completely “detach” himself from work.  Knowing this, I’ll sometimes take the initiative to drive out to the base, pull him away from it all, and just head out for an outdoor BBQ, hiking, or a day trip somewhere.   We have become quite good friends as a result.

The two of us were chatting the other evening and he told me about a more-than-interesting encounter he had with a group of Québec squeegee kids (this also highlighted the fact to me that my friend can sometimes have a very difficult time turning off the 24/7 social worker in his head).

For those of you who are not aware, squeegee kids (or “des squeegees” as they are known in French) are scrubby-looking young guys and girls — often with a dog in tow, often with spiked punk hair and cargo clothes — who stand on street corners and will “squeegee” (clean) your car window for a dollar or two.

This is a phenomena which “generally” is restricted to Montréal, but is also found in Québec City, and Ottawa (which I consider to be half-within Québec’s-cultural sphere).

These “kids” are generally Francophone.

You will sometimes encounter them elsewhere in Canada.  I can remember having seen them in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in small towns along the Trans-Canada highway, holding cardboard signs saying “Travelling from Québec to Vancouver – will wash your car or window for donations”.

This is mostly a Québec cultural phenomena.   There is even a Wikipedia article on it.

sq.kds1

My friend is Francophone, from Québec.  Last weekend he was in Montréal.  As he was walking down the street, he crossed a group of squeegee kids.

After he walked past them on the sidewalk, he stopped, turned around, looked at them for a few moments, went into McDonald’s, bought a few combo meals, went back out, sat down beside the squeegee kids, gave each of them a combo meal, and engaged them in conversation.

My friend said to me “You should have seen the look on their faces – it was like Christmas had arrived!”

The Squeegees immediately opened up and started to tell him their stories.

They were all between 18 and 22 years old.  Some had been beaten by their parents since infancy, some had been sexually abused by relatives their whole lives, others had been in the foster-care system their whole lives and could never quite settle into the school system, eventually dropping out.

All were homeless, with no families to fall back on.  They had, by default, become each other’s support group (a de facto street family).  None were life-long habitual drug users, but some had got caught up in drugs an alcohol at one point or another by simply having found themselves on the streets.  However, in this particular group, all had gone dry and were trying to resist falling back into the drugs and alcohol trap.

Christmas and other holidays are spent on the streets.  During birthdays there are no phone calls or gifts from family members.

All of them unanimously said that they were looking for ways to get off the streets, but they knew it would be difficult because it is a viscous cycle.  With no fixed address, it is difficult to qualify for various programs, let-alone secure employment.   A couple of the Squeegees in the group were planning on setting out for Vancouver to spend the winter, raising money for the bus along the way by offering to clean windshields along the way (the phenomena I described above).  They were planning to return to Montréal in the spring.

During the winter, they sometimes resort to sleeping beside parked cars to benefit from the heat given off from recently shut off engines.

My friend talked to them a bit about various non-profit and governmental programs available to them, and the importance to take advantage of such programs.  He told them that it is not important that they fully throw themselves within the net of these programs, but just to begin to slowly take advantage of bits and pieces of these programs, one small step at a time.

He offered advice on how to climb out of the viscous cycle they had fallen into.

He also emphasized the importance of concentrating on the here-and-now, and to look for what things they can do in the future to improve their lot, rather than concentrating on the past.  We cannot re-write the past, but we can write the future.

He said they lapped up every piece of information as if it was something they had been waiting to hear for a very long time.

He spent over a good hour with them, and they had no shortage of questions for him.  It became obvious to him that these kids were desperate to improve their situation, and they knew full-well that if things did not improve, this could quickly become a life-long trap of homelessness.

In the end, when he left them, he was very moved by the whole experience.   It gave him a perspective of a situation of a particular group of people he had no previous idea about.  Like me, he saw Squeegee kids on a regular basis, without ever knowing the story or the situation behind the face.

He suggested to me that the two of us should make a weekend trip to Montréal and perhaps do a weekend of volunteer work with organizations helping these kids, or if for no other reason, to even just lend an ear.

It’s interesting, because I’ve often wanted to ask panhandlers about their stories.  But I guess I have always been a little chicken to do so.

I do volunteer work when I have the time, and I do donate to certain charities, but it has never directly been related to the homeless.

Yet, my friend’s experience emphasized the fact that homelessness can often start right at the time when youth are becoming young adults, and that is the key moment for intervention.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been cynical in the past with respect to some aspects of Canada’s homeless problem – often assuming that people beg for money for alcohol or drugs.

Perhaps part of the skepticism came from the failed “food coupon” program (a project a number of years ago in which Edmonton grocery stores sold cash-value coupons to customers.  The customers could give the coupons to Edmonton’s homeless when they begged for money.  The coupons were redeemable at any grocery store for anything except alcohol or cigarettes.  But Edmonton’s homeless overwhelmingly rejected the coupons when offered the coupons in the street.  Only a small fraction of them were ever redeemed.  Within a year, the program was cancelled as a failure).

Perhaps another part of my skepticism subconsciously stems from my overseas experiences.

I regularly saw real-life “maimed slum-dog” children when I worked in India, or adult “handlers” in China standing at one end of a street as they forced maimed children to beg for money at the other end of the street.   The children would then hand the money to the adults afterwards.

I remember one incident in particular in China. A child, about 5 or 6 years old (perhaps a bit older, but maybe looked younger owing to malnourishment), was begging for money as I was getting into my car.  I refused to give the child money.  Yet the child pushed his way into my car.  I tried to push him out of my car, but he crawled right in and would not let go until I gave him money.

I had a friend with me who was visiting from Canada.  My friend wanted me to give money, but I refused because I knew these children were being “used” by adult “handlers”.  Sometimes the children were kidnapped, and often they were purposely physically crippled by their handlers to evoke an emotional reaction to get more cash.

My friend did not believe me when I told her this.   So to make a point, when the child refused to get out of my car and started to scratch us, I purposely started to drive several metres down the road with the child in my car.

Just as I knew would happen, two adult ladies came running after me, only to start beating the child for not succeeding in getting money from me.   My friend and I had to pull the ladies off the child and I grabbed a lady telling her I was calling the cops.   The ladies did everything they could to run away.   But 10 minutes later, I saw that they put the child back “on duty”, begging for money again.

Here in Canada, when I host friends who are visiting from developing overseas countries, they often refuse to give money to Canadian beggars, saying that people in Canada have all the opportunities in the world, and this is not an environment or society in which people should feel they need to beg for money (I have one good overseas friend in this category who is financially quite successful – a multi-millionaire.  He came from an extremely poor background.  He was penniless when he left his parent’s home in rural China as a young adult.  With only about $20 to his name, he left rural NW China to find a job in the city so as to be able to support his parents in their village.  He actually had to sleep in a park for the first two weeks in the city because he had no money… but he worked his butt off, and made it – never begging once.   20 years later, he now does what he can to support the down-trodden where he lives in China – even going so far as to sponsor poor youth by paying their university tuition, or giving money to elderly without pensions – yet he views Canada’s homeless problem as something completely different).

Since moving to Toronto, I have become more aware of the fact that a portion of the problem has to do with mental issues and perhaps institutional discharging in the 1990s as a result of health-care restructuring (the rapid en-masse closure of mental institutions without half-way house infrastructure having properly been in place for economic and social re-integration).

Having also grown up near reserves in the West, I am also aware of the aboriginal component – the effect of social ostracization and cultural displacement – and how this has contributed to homeless issues in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Regina.

But, with all that said… my military-social-worker friend and his experiences with the Québec squeegee kids has put everything in a whole new perspective.  It made me stare at my own prejudices straight in the face, and it hit me.

Frankly speaking, I will never again look at Québec’s Squeegee kids, or this problem in the same light.

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A rare radio interview with Stephen Harper (#364)

Stephen Harper hardly ever (ie: almost never) gives radio interviews to populist radio stations – unless he is sure that he will be on “relatively” safe ground.

One such station to which he just gave an interview is Radio-X.   Also known as CHOI FM, it is a French-language station from Québec City.

I personally listen to Radio-X quite a lot (this is one of the stations I regularly have on in the background at home or when doing work at my computer – among some other stations I listen to in both English and French).

Why?  Because it makes me think (whether I agree or not about what is being said), and it exercises my brain.  They sometimes say things I do not necessarily agree with (and I just shake my head when that happens), but other times they do.

I have a streak of everything inside me; left, right, up, down, in, out, and every place in between – which makes it so I enjoy listening to the whole gamut of views.

Populist radio stations also reflect popular views of the public – and it is extremely important to understand the public which surrounds you, especially when that public is comprised of your own compatriots and is also making decisions relevant to all of us (regardless if their views are the same or different).  We’re all in this together.

Radio-X has a little bit of everything for me in that sense — and obviously many other people also agree with me (otherwise it would not be one of the top-rated radio stations in Québec outside of the Montréal region).

You can listen to the Harper interview below.

Do not worry if your French is no higher than an upper-elementary level — Harper’s is not either.  Also, his heavy Anglophone accent would make him easier to understand for Anglophones versus listening to Francophones.

To listen to the interview, click below, then click “ÉCOUTER” on the screen.

Sometimes online Radio-X interviews are only available online for one week… so act fast if you wish to hear the interview.

radx1

And yes, Harper made headlines in Québec with this interview — particularly with his statement that Radio-Canada’s woes are due to its own falling ratings and lack of appealing programming (versus Federal budget funding cuts).

Is there some truth to that?  Perhaps to a certain extent.

But… I do not believe that his statement is wholly accurate.   It is a complex subject, and funding cuts do not necessarily help CBC-Radio-Canada to “find their way” in a rapidly changing broadcasting world which harbours armies of new competition online, and in which cut-back reprieves could assist them to find stable ground in that changing world – even if temporary or for a few years.

His statement also does not take into account the mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada, and how the organization is supposed to be different from other networks (in the context of content, not popularity).

But would Harper dare make such a categorical statement in English about the CBC? (Radio-Canada’s English counterpart).   I doubt it.

Have a listen.

A well-made BBC video questioning if Québec is able to integrate the Anglophone immigrants it “needs” (#363)

The title is self-explanatory.

Because this is made by such a prestigious institution as the BBC, and because they have no biased interest in making such a story (whereas a news organization like RFI from France may take a biased view), this video presents some fascinating angles through a fresh set of eyes.

Click below to access the article and the video.

bbc.doc1


As an aside, the BBC is in Canada right now, exploring the country and its stories – coast to coast – in the build-up to the October 19th election.

Their first stop was Québec City.  They also made a 3 minute short story on what matters to people in Québec City.

I’m happy the did this report.  Too often, the spot-light is squarely on Montréal, which often neglect whole other parts of the province.

Québec is so much more than just Montréal.

Personally, I have tried to include Québec City and numerous other issues / events touching other parts of Québec in my blog (things which are not only Montréal issues).  Therefore my hat goes off to the BBC for trying to do the same thing.

Here is that 3 minute video if you are interested:

bbc.doc2

The Niqab debate is once again staying in English Canada’s headlines – With love from Québec (#362)

You may recall that in April, I wrote a post about how Québec’s debate surrounding the Niqab had made the jump from Québec to English Canada.

You can read that post here:  The “reasonable accommodations” debate makes the leap from Québec to the rest of Canada

In the last post, I also wrote why I believe the Niqab debate has remained alive-and-well at the Federal level of debate in Québec.

Stemming from the French debate last week, this issue has once again made that major leap from Québec’s headlines to English Canada’s headlines.

There are only three weeks left in the election.  Considering the Conservatives presumably know they found a subject which strikes a chord on both sides of the linguistic line, the question will be if they will try to keep this topic alive in English Canada until the election, just as they have in Québec’s Federal scene.

Here are some examples of how, after the “leap from Québec”, this is once again gaining steam in English Canada as an election issue.  These are examples from just the last few days:

As you can see, since the debates, this has once again become a headline-grabber right from Victoria in the West, to Winnipeg in the middle, and to St. John’s in the East.

Just what are the very latest stances from our federal party leaders?

Here is the low-down with rather new, up-to-date video — straight from the horses’ mouths:

Gilles Duceppe (in English):

Elizabeth May (This one is only in French.  May has seemingly tried to prevent this from becoming an election issue, and thus I cannot find video of her thoughts on the issue in English.  Nonetheless, when pushed hard by a rather well-known French-language political journalist for her thoughts on the issue itself, May had this to say… much in line with Mulcair.  Fast forward to 8:57):

http://ici.radio-canada.ca/tele/les-coulisses-du-pouvoir/2015-2016/segments/entrevue/3203/election-federale-elizabeth-may?isAutoPlay=1

Stephen Harper (in English):

I have saved what I believe is the best for last (at least from the standpoint of what is the most interesting).

Here are two men who are supposedly on the same side of the issue.

Yet their ability to enunciate and explain their positions to the public are like night and day.  (Kind of reminds me of the Seasame Street song:  Who are the better explainers in your neighbourhood…?  Oh, wait… That wasn’t the name of the song)

Thomas Mulcair (in English):

Justin Trudeau (in English):

From Québec, with Love!

See… I told you that membrane separating topics across the Two Solitudes is not impermeable.  But sometimes some of the topics which tend to cross it are not like a Happy New Years card crossing the country in the mail — although the latter is always nice to get 😉

The Two Solitudes came to the fore after the French-language election debate (#361)

I waited a couple of days to see what the reactions to the first French-language debate would be (all-around).

In Québec:

The reactions were just as they would be for any debate (be it English or French):  “This person scored a couple points, that person could have done better”… “We never saw this other person in quite the same light”… “The moderator could have asked this question or dealt with this different” … …

Nothing Earth-shattering in Québec, just as there was nothing Earth shattering in the English-language debates in Anglophone Canada.

But what I did not foresee were the reactions of

  1. negative misunderstandings coming from English Canada regarding the context of questions in the debate, and
  2. highly mediatized negative reactions to the debate questions on the part of Francophones in other provinces.

The debate was broadcast live, with simultaneous English translations across Canada on CBC News Network, CBC Radio, as well as online platforms.  It was also broadcast to Francophones across Canada in French on Rad-Can’s main network, RDI, and the radio.

Negative misunderstandings coming from English Canada regarding the context of questions in the debate:

If someone had asked me before the debate what I would have foreseen as any possible Anglophone backlash to the debate, I would have guessed it would have related to potential inflammatory or controversial remarks by the Bloc Québécois leader.

But to my great surprise, unlike past debates, this was not the case.

Anglophones across social media, and even some mainstream media, took offense that questions were posed, in a national federal debate, regarding the issue of wearing the Niqab during citizenship ceremonies.

Many people could not understand

  • why the issue was brought up, believing it wasted valuable debate time on an issue which nobody cares about (and which many in English Canada have not even heard about), and
  • how it was a relevant topic to debate in the context of an election.

Here are some examples of the backlash to which I am referring (from Reddit alone, not to mention other social media platforms):

How is the Niqab an issue? It’s one f****g person at an oath ceremony. The issue went to the Supreme Court and got settled. What’s left to argue over? Our feelings?!?

I was extremely disappointed and frustrated that the moderators chose to bring this topic up at all.

But then the same backlash hit mainstream media as well (less a few F-bombs)…

On the CBC at issue panel, Andrew Coyne of the National Post could not hold back his anger that this was a topic in a French language debate.  I cannot recall the last time I have ever seen him become so emotionally upset (angry) on any edition of the At-issue panel.

This resulted in Chantal Hébert emotionally lashing back at him (again, a rarety during an At-issue debate), thus putting him in his place.

You can view the fiery exchange here.  It starts at 5:39 in the video:  http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-election-2015-at-issue-panel-globe-economic-debate-1.3243048

The problem is that those complaining this issue has made its way into the French-language debate obviously have no idea about anything of relevance of this topic in Québec… a topic which has been hotly debated for the past four years (with people on one side trying vehemently to make this a larger issue, and people on another side trying to put the issue to rest).

I can understand a certain ignorance from English Canada’s social media.  I would expect there would be people who are not “in the know” on this topic.

But Andrew Coyne?

If he is so ignorant regarding the importance of what has been one of the most front-and-centre issues in French Canada’s media for the last half decade, then in my eyes, it will take years for his opinions to regain any credibility with me when they touch on “national issues” which supposedly transcend linguistic lines.

Before this hot exchange on the At-issue panel, I had absolutely no idea that Coyne’s views were so squarely locked in such an out-of-touch bubble-world.  

Talk about a walking incarnation of the Two Solitudes in the flesh.

The issue is that for the past four years this has been a very public debate in Québec which has transcended provincial and federal politics.  Divisive provincial politics, a history of trying to balance reasonable accommodations in the context of interculturalism / multiculturalism, along with decades of Québec’s own unique cultural “soul searching” has kept this very topic front and centre.

The topic has become a metaphorical flag, waved much more by nationalist politics in Québec than by federal politics outside Québec.  But Canada’s Federal politicians have been dragged into the debate in Québec, and to no small extent

Even more telling, the federal Conservatives have thrust themselves into this already very public debate in Québec; very openly and vocally siding with sovereignist political parties (the PQ and BQ) in order to score political points and to woo Québec’s voters.

So yes… it was brought up in the debate, and it was the Conservatives who have kept the issue alive-and-well in Québec’s federal political scene for the last few years.

If people are going to bitch out the fact that this was brought up in the debate, then bitch out Stephen Harper.  Do not bitch out the debate.

There y’are Andrew Coyne… write about that.   And to quote Chantal… “5 minutes in two hours!”

I’ll buy an edition of the National Post on Monday to read the article – looking forward to it.


ADDENDUM:  2015-10-02  

On September 30th, Andrew Coyne of the National post published a well-balanced article, with good reflection, describing his view on the Niqab issue and why it should not have become the issue it has become in the federal election.

In his article, he did call out the Federal Conservatives for keeping this issue alive at a federal-political level in Québec, and that he felt the Conservatives keeping it alive did nothing more than pander to a certain public in Québec who would be persuaded to believe their lives are materially affected by it.

It is a good article, and it allayed my concerns with his earlier appearance on the At-issue panel.  I would encourage you to read it.  It’s good article which I agree with.

http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/andrew-coyne-to-uncover-or-not-to-uncover-why-the-niqab-issue-is-ridiculous


Highly mediatized negative reactions to the debate on the part of Francophones in other provinces:

Canada has numerous Francophone political associations which represent (or purport to represent) Francophones outside Québec at a national and provincial level.  I once wrote a post on the topic:  Official Francophone representation outside Québec

It is not new for Francophone associatiations (and Francophones outside of Québec in general) to consider themselves “slighted” by Québec’s Montréal-centric media (you have seen me write on this topic numerous times).

Thus I was not surprised to see a backlash from Francophones in other provinces crying fowl that questions important to them were not brought up in the French language debate.

But where I was surprised was the ampleur and equivocal loudness of the complaints this time around.  The complaints were so unanimous, so loud, and so damning, that the complaints became headline news in-and-of-themselves in Québec!

This is something completely new.  I have never seen this before.

I believe this new phenomena is occurring because of the instant-nature of social media, the ability the internet affords for people to speak with one voice, and the ability the internet affords common people to “go straight to the top” with their complaints.

People have been saying for years that the internet is changing everything in democracy and our political process, and this is one case in point (people can now “digitally rebel” on political matters such as the Federal debates if they feel they are not representative).

More importantly, this has sent the concept of Francophone-to-Francophone Two Solitudes (which exists between those in Québec and those outside Québec) straight into the headlines, and straight into the senior management offices of Radio-Canada.

Here are two French-language headline articles on the topic in Québec:

(Francophones outside Québec felt excluded):  http://ici.radio-canada.ca/sujet/elections-canada-2015/2015/09/25/001-debat-chefs-francophones-exclus-reactions.shtml

(Radio-Canada defends itself for having ignored Francophones outside Québec):  http://ici.radio-canada.ca/sujet/elections-canada-2015/2015/09/25/013-debat-chefs-francais-radio-canada-se-defend-avoir-ignore-francophones-hors-quebec.shtml

Wow!

The fact that Radio-Canada felt it was backed into a corner while surrounded by a mob holding torches and pitchforks says something.

Again, this is new.

Michel Cormier (Rad-Can’s head of news services, who himself is Acadian from New Brunswick) actually felt he had to make a live, on–air appearance on RDI to try to deflect the blame.

Instead of trying to desperately defend Rad-Can, I personally would have rather seen him take the “moral high ground” and say that Radio-Canada could have done a better job.  But hey, the fact that Rad-Can finally felt threatened to this extent says something.

As the internet continues to become a powerful tool for change and a voice for the disenfranchised, I wonder what else might come down the road.

I also wonder what changes we may see in the second French-language debate (hosted by TVA).

I’m sure TVA will not want to be subjected to the same criticisms as Radio-Canada (after all, the two networks seem to have a hate-on for each other… but that’s a whole other blog topic – one which I’ll leave for another day).

The second debate is on October 2nd.  Stay tuned.