Affordable Feenie

July 24, 2008

A positive review in the Globe and Mail for Kickstart participant Rob Feenie’s new culinary incarnation, as the “food concept architect” at the Cactus Club. People have taken shots at Feenie’s ostensible move down market and they’ve certainly had fun with his new title (an absurd-sounding moniker, but one that keeps him from violating the non-compete clause he has with the owners of his old restaurants, Lumiere and Feenie’s), but, from what Alexandra Gill says here, the move may not only provide the man a valuable salary boost – it may result in a major contribution to the quality of “casual dining” across the board.

Monday’s Globe and Mail ran a story that officially confirmed something that we and most young people have known for ages: fewer and fewer of us are finishing off at the academic institution where we first enroll, graduating before the five year mark, or avoiding time off from school to get some thinking done.

Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Project has been tracking a group of young canadians since 2000 (the year the three of us entered university). That research has been brought together in a paper by StatsCan’s Theresa Qiu and University of Ottawa economist Ross Finnie which will be officially released later in the month.

It’s findings:

– Roughly one quarter of college students take time off, take more than five years to graduate, or change their minds about their school or area of study.

– About 10% leave school without graduating.

– 2.8% are moving from university to college (not shocking at all – in fact, we assumed this might be higher)

– 1.4% do the opposite and switch from college to university.

Before anyone starts freaking out and pointing at today’s commitment-phobic, chronically ADD “Twixters” who have been spoiled to the point that they’ll never know what they want, let’s slow down a second.

Young people have always been restless. That’s what they do. And though their parents weren’t necessarily as prone to bounce and stop and ponder and bounce again, there’s a good reason why. Not to sound whiny, but we’ve grown up watching our parents and friend’s parents divorce, suffer mid-life breakdowns, and look back on past mistakes with great regret. As we approach an uncertain future, the way of life that so many have taken for granted for so long suddenly seems in dire need of an overhaul (remember that boomers?), but few have put forward viable new paradigms for living in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the education system we’ve emerged from subscribes to an antiquated 19th model that has refused to adapt to the rate and nature of societal change. One of the most pressing but least discussed issues facing Canadian society today is how to adapt our education system to new ways of working and living. We need to abandon the industrial model and develop something more participatory that encourages free-thinking and innovation. This new model must help the students passing through it test their interests and desires against the realities of the world into which they’ll soon be living.

The Bachelors degree has become today’s high school. That needs to be reversed.

And yes, of course, the phenomenon noted in the research has to do with the students themselves as well. We are a bit coddled (in general). We are hyper-programmed, to the point where few high school students Paul has taught are really capable of discussing what it is that theylike or think.

Further, our consumer society has had a huge spill-over effect on the educational sphere, making it yet another mall, where we can shop for a future. “Do I like environmental science? Hmm. I’ll try it on. Do I look fat in this? Maybe. Yeah, I think my butt looked better in business.”

In the end though, all this shopping isn’t such a bad thing. As we discovered while putting together Kickstart, some of the most successful people in the country did their share of shopping too.

Margot Franssen, the head of Accessorize Canada and former head of Body Shop Canada, tried out business at university, got bored, switched to philosophy, graduated with a “worthless” degree, and still managed to set up a hugely successful company.

Syndicated cartoonist Lynn Johnston, designer Bruce Mau, and artist Christopher Pratt all dropped out of art school or switched schools.

Jim Pattison left university to sell cars. His boss let him finish up his courses at night, but that meant he took longer than necessary.

Edward Burtynsky took a year off from Ryerson in order to get work experience and earn extra money.

Shopping around and taking time to think about what you want and need from a career is not a bad thing, provided that your shopping is active rather than idle.

Dignitas International’s James Orbinski bounced around quite a bit as a young man. Her left CEGEP twice, took time to figure out his university major, thought he might want to be a psychologist, and then changed his mind. Throughout, though, he says he was “searching with intent,” actively looking for what sparked his particular passion.

In tough economic times, there is no doubt more pressure on young people to pick a career path and power through post-secondary education. Fair enough. It costs a lot of money to hang around into your fifth or sixth year of a university program or take time off to clear your head.

That said, parents, educators, and politicians should be aware that, for many, the search is essential. If they’re not able to engage in it in high school, then they’ll need to do it at university. And if not there, then at some time thereafter.

If we’re going to freak out. Let’s at least freak out in the right direction – a constructive one.

Former Health Minister, BC Premier and Attorney General, and current federal Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dossanjh was a rebellious young man. Not in the sense that he stewed with adolescent angst, adopted a nihilist mantle and refused to get a job. No, rebellious in that he was determined to make his own way.

Dossnjh grew up in Dosanjh Kalan, near Phagwara, India in the immediate aftermath of the country’s independence. As a child, he watched the parades of freedom fighters come through his town and soaked up the tales of those who had sacrificed everything for his country. His maternal grandfather had fought the British and spent the better part of eight years in colonial jails. His father was a teacher who founded the village high school.

Dossanjh never really wanted to be a politician, but he knew he wanted to live with dignity, in a manner that made a difference to his community. His father pushed him to be a doctor or an engineer after high school, but Ujjal was having none of it. He grew disenchanted with study and began reading Blitz, a left-leaning newspaper from Bombay. When it was clear his father wouldn’t let him study political science, he began looking for a way out.

“I wanted to be on my own and control my own fate,” Dossanjh recalls, “so I decided that getting out of India was probably the best thing. Then I wouldn’t have to confront my father, which would have been too much of a burden on me. He didn’t know all the turmoil going through my mind at that time.
It was just sheer chance that I bumped into a friend who was leaving for England. I followed his lead. I had to convince my father to help me, which was another struggle, but finally I persuaded him to let me go.”

But Dossanjh hardly spoke any English. When he arrived at Heathrow in 1964 and began living with his cousin in Bedford, he couldn’t even ask for directions around town.

At first he worked as a shunter, doing twelve hour shifts, breaking trains for British railways. These hours didn’t give him time to attend college, so eventually Ujjal took work as a secondary school lab assistant. Later, he worked at a crayon factory, a car factory, and a newspaper office.

During his three and a half years in England, Dossanjh tried to absorb as much culture and news as possible.

“On weekends I would go to the local libraries to pick up the week’s newspapers and a couple of books,” he told us. “The BBC used to have a station that had almost no music and no commercials, all talk radio: Security Council or United Nations debates, House of Commons debates, commentaries, interviews, panel discussions. I learned to speak English by listening to the BBC.”

Dossanjh eventually decided he wanted to study history, but he found the British-focussed courses were too introverted.

“One King George was like another King George,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out the difference.”

One day, while walking by the Canadian High Commission in Grosvenor Square, it occurred to Dossanjh that he could go and live with his aunt and uncle in Vancouver.

“I came right to Vancouver and I fell in love with the place,” Dossanjh recalls. “It was a sunny day in May. I flew into a very small airport and took a cab to my aunt’s house. You could see green grass for miles on one side and the ocean on the other. I felt I had landed in heaven. I was a young kid, only twenty-one, and I soon decided that I would stay here, unless I had to go back to my village.

“In Canada the experience was different than in England. From day one, I felt that the society was more open. It was a lot richer and, of course, Vancouver was more beautiful than any place in England. The weather was great and I was able to find work through my uncle very quickly. He got me a job in a lumber mill, pulling lumber off the grain train. As I was living here, I noticed that the Indians – what we now call Indo-Canadians – were more integrated in this society than in England. British society is closed and less mobile. I felt more at home in Canada right away.”

That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Many Indo-Canadians worked as farmhands and janitors, where their contracts offered them few rights. Dossanjh had been socially-engaged in England, retaining an interest in fighting for social justice. He’d attended Labour Party meetings, but he’d never become a member. But when he came to Vancouver, he joined the NDP and began helping union members organize.

At night, after working the lumber yards, Dossanjh took night classes at a community college and, later, Simon Fraser University. Ultimately, he graduated from the latter with a degree in Political Science and was accepted to law school at the University of British Columbia.

“I had also applied to do my masters in International Relations at Carlton,” he recalls. “I had a TA-ship and a scholarship available, and was ready to go, as I hadn’t heard back from law school yet. One day, I read a newspaper article that told me there were over 3,200 PhDs on the job market in Canada. That was enough for me. I decided to wait for my admission to law school. Thankfully, it eventually came.”

Dossanjh became fascinated by labour law and human rights- especially after the work he’d done with mill workers. His proudest moment came when he and three friends traveled down to the Fraser Valley to witness the working conditions of contracted farm workers.

“It was a hot summer day. We disguised ourselves, packed like sardines in a van. By the end of the day, the contractor had realised who we were, so he ordered a big long bus to take us all back to Vancouver.

“We put together a farm workers’ information service, the first of its kind in the west of Canada, with some funding from the law foundation. I wanted to help people who were being mistreated. That was the beginning of my work with farm labourers.”

At the end of law school, in lieu of getting a big job at a big firm, Dosanjh set off on his own. He wanted to be in a position where he could take on the types of clients he wanted; where he didn’t need to account for taking on pro bono work.

“I remember taking cases of people who collected money from farmers without paying them,” Dosanjh told us. “There were many cases with farm contractors taking farmers to court. I remember doing Human Rights cases at the bar. That came naturally for two reasons. One, because I was a bit of a rabble-rouser. I think people knew I would be able to do the work for either no money or very little money. Two, there weren’t that many people who understood both the language and the culture of the Indian workers they were dealing with. So it was easier for people to deal with me.”

A mere year later, Dosanjh opted to run for the provincial legislature. Previous to that, he had only helped the NDP by doing door-to-door canvasing and making phone calls. In addition to having little political machine behind him, Dosanjh found himself one of the lone non-white faces in the field. He received more than a few doors slammed in his face and ultimately lost by a sizable margin.

Still, he kept at it, running again in 1983, and again in 1991. With each passing race, he found a more diverse group of candidates and a more accepting voter base. Finally the win came.

The money would come as well, but that too would take a while.

“When I was setting up my firm in 1977,” he recalls, “I took home 250 dollars a month. That was compared to the $3,000 that I would have taken home at a decent sized firm. By 1990, my practice had grown really well and I was making 200,000 or a quarter of a million dollars a year, a lot of money for an east-side lawyer. And what did I do? I gave all that up in 1991 to go get a job as an MLA for $67,000 a year.

“One of my two sons would always say, “Why did you go into politics, you could have bought me a Mercedes.”

An intriguing little piece from Marcus Gee in today’s Globe about natural gas engine-maker Westport Innovations Inc., one of the few Canadian companies to take advantage of the huge money to be made helping China green itself before the Olympics.

Westport and its US-based partner, Cummins Inc., have equipped 3,500 Beijing buses with natural gas engines, as the Chinese government scrambles to clean its air before the international media descends in August.

But where are the other Canadian companies? It turns out the Australians and Europeans are doing boffo business, while Canadian producers of green technology are sitting on the sidelines. Seems odd, no? We’re an international leader in clean coal technologies, among other things green and innovative, right?

According to David Fung, Chariman of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, it’s partly because we’re being so gosh darn ‘Canadian’ about it (my words, not his).

Of Canada’s predominantly small, independent environment technology companies, Fung says “They have the technology and the capabilities, but they refuse to set themselves up in a way that would allow them to succeed.”

Westport’s David Demers agrees, saying “a lot of Canadian companies go with a naive view that they’ll go over and spend a couple of days in a hotel in Beijing and get a big purchase order and then they’ll send a container of the stuff,” he says. “It takes a lot more sophisticated approach than that.”

The key, according to both men, is commitment and perseverance. Doing business in China requires time: months, maybe more, before serious agreements can be made.

It’s time, Gee argues, that we start pushing and stop waiting our turn.

“Musings” reprise

July 4, 2008

In contrast to Paul’s rather placid day on July 1, Alex had a different experience. He was in Ottawa, trouncing around Parliament Hill, taking in the celebrations. It was hard to count, but there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, swarming the streets of By Town, dressed in red and white, waving flags, pushing strollers, singing songs, holding hands, selling ice cream, juggling and playing guitars. It was quite an orgy of patriotism.

Alex felt a little out of place for wearing a t-shirt with a Saskatchewan flag emblazoned on the front and a subtitle that read “Saskatchewan Youth Return Home to Relieve Your Parents and Elders”. At every turn there were maple leafs, either painted on faces or on banners. The joy was directed towards an image – that of a symbolically united Canada – and there was little space for anything else. There was not a provincial insignia in sight, nor were there any emblems of Canada’s distant past and certainly nothing – save one or two musical acts – that represented any of the Native traditions.

The crowd was a diverse set, but nowhere could be seen the multi-national flagfest of the Euro Cup tournament. Even the – surprisingly numerous – French-speaking attendees foresook their Quebec or Franco-Ontarian fleurs-de-lie for more neutral, more reserved colours.

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Some local townsfolk told Alex it was the largest crowd they’d ever seen for Canada Day. Could nationalism be on the rise in English Canada? Well, it seemed like it in Ottawa. But a certain type of nationalism, one that relies on a single unifying symbol, rather than an amalgam of historical markers. And a nationalism that is tied into the culture of a specific locality. July 1 in Toronto, as Paul pointed out, is quite a different experience. Torontonians don’t feel their lives entertwine as intimately with the maple leaf quite so much as Ottawans do. It makes sense: fewer people are reminded of Canada on a daily basis because fewer people work directly for Canada.

In Toronto, the urge is to escape. To escape the routine of a job and to escape the confines of the city. The country is found, for the Toronto urbanite, not in the community of other like-minded celebrationists, but in the great outdoors – in the country.

Canada Day Musings

July 1, 2008

There’s nothing worse than the idle, self-indulgent musings of a over-caffeinated procrastinator, but it’s Canada Day and I (Paul) am stuck in Toronto, trying (unsuccessfully) to work in a Queen St. coffee shop, and I can’t help but wonder why the heck I’m not at a cottage, or at least by the water, with friends, engaging in the most ‘Canadian’ of pass-times (if you believe that Molson pitchman at least): drinking and lighting things on fire.

An odd thing, after the wave of multi-nationalistic furor that enveloped this city during the European Cup, to step outside my door and see no flag-waving drunks chanting wildly about the ‘True North Strong and Free’. Odd to think that, despite all of the thinking the three of us have done about “Canada’ and “Canadianness” of late, that this day leaves me feeling little more than an almost torpid calm.

It doesn’t make me think about how few Canadians know their own history any more. Or how too many of us off-handedly dismiss our nation’s potential. Or engage with our own politics. No, those thoughts tend to percolate the ole brain on other days, but not today.

Today, I just want to escape this coffee shop, unshackle myself from this laptop, throw off all thoughts about what needs to be done tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.

Yes, I need to escape this place. What on earth am I doing?

I’m off.

Happy Canada Day everyone.