About Going Back to School in a Pandemic

Things that going back to school during a pandemic are not about:

  • Forcing overworked Moms to go back to work for low wages to keep the economy strong.
  • Enabling parents to pursue business and lifestyle dreams in which their children come second.

Things that going back to school during a pandemic are absolutely about:

  • Ensuring that children receive the best possible education, period.
  • Ensuring that children receive the best possible health care, period.

How does society accomplish this?

  • Develop plans by listening to education and healthcare professionals, not school boards and politicians.
  • Collectively pay the full cost. Period.

There. That was simple, wasn’t it!


White Folks and Original Sin

Immigrants to North America have long seemed determined to practice Original Sin. It’s bad enough that we white folk from Europe stole North America at gunpoint from its original inhabitants, but then we went and imported (also at gunpoint) people from yet another continent to serve as our slaves. That must be why we white folks have such a problem with Black Lives Matter: it’s hard enough to admit that we have wronged another race, let alone figure out which one we’re talking about on any given day!

Lest we white Canadians protest that we never had slaves and that we have always treated our Indigenous neighbours fairly through negotiated treaties, I would like to offer this blog post written by my (formerly Australian) wife Valerie, in which she shares a seminal moment in her understanding of Canada’s flawed inter-racial relationships:

In the 1970s we lived for awhile in Slave Lake, where I worked for a time as a bank teller at the local branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia. In those days, the federal government gave coupons to the residents of the First Nations Reservation north of the town. These they would take to the local store on the Res to buy their groceries etc.

There was, apparently, a policy at the time to bring the First Nations people – one at a time – out of the reserve and put them in the town of Slave Lake “to learn to live like the white man”. They were told, “No more coupons, just the government cheque. Go to a bank where they will take the cheque and give you money.” 

Most did not speak any English, only Cree. These people would be picked up by a bus and dropped off on Main Street. We knew an Irish Catholic Monk there who would find these people sitting – mostly at night – in doorways, not knowing what to do or where to go. He would take them home and feed and clothe these poor people, which is where we met a number of them.

So, at the end of the month, the government cheques came in: old age pension, family allowance and so on. When a (white) senior came in with her cheque, the teller would be all smiles and very chatty and gave her cash. Then there was another, and another, receiving the same welcoming treatment. Then a very small Indigenous man came in with his cheque and a young man who was his interpreter. The teller said, “we don’t cash those here.” The young man asked, “why not” and she said, “because the government takes too long to pay the bank.” The young man told the old man who looked totally confused: “now what?” The teller said, “move back I have to serve others.”

Then along came a young (white) mum with her two children and her family allowance cheque.  The teller was chatty as before and there was no problem. The mum and her kids left with cash in hand. I watched as the old man and young man talked quietly together, not knowing what to do. 

Another (white) senior came in and again there was no problem: out he went with his money. The old man and young man shuffled forward to the teller again, and she said, “I told you we don’t cash those here. Step back!” They went and stood by the door, not knowing where to go from here. Then a young Indigenous mum came in with her three children  and her family allowance cheque. The teller said, “I’ve told you before we don’t cash those here.” and she, too, left.

I watched this a number of times and when I asked the teller what the difference was between the government cheques, her response was, “We won’t cash their cheques because it takes too long to get our money back.” When I asked, “What about the white peoples’ cheques?” she said “Oh, that’s different, they need their money of course and we always cash their cheques.” I then asked, “So where are Indigenous people supposed to go to get their money?” she replied, “Who cares? Go to the liquor store for all we care, or anywhere else that will cash it.”

I was very angry and very sad.  The old man and young man were still standing near the door.   So I called the old man over to my wicket. I told the young man to tell him to make his sign and I would cash his cheque. Which is exactly what he did: one “X” later and I cashed his government cheque. And that is when the most heartbreaking thing of all happened: this little man literally bowed down to me and backed all the way to the door bowing to me, because I had given to him what was rightfully his!

A little later a young Indigenous mum came in with her family allowance and came straight to my wicket. Of course, I cashed her cheque. Then came another, and I did the same. I was soon called into the manager’s office, where he told me, “We absolutely do not cash their cheques, telling me the same reason the teller had told. I said “Okay”.

It was no time at all before I had a line-up of Indigenous people, young and old, with their government cheques.  I was called three times into the manager’s office who told me off and I would keep saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry I forgot………”

The last time he called me in I was fired.  By giving these people their money for their cheques, which they had every right to cash – the same right as all the white folks who came in at the end of the month – it cost me my job. No one, absolutely no one, should feel they have to bow down – let alone walk backwards while bowing – to anyone.

“Heartbreaking” doesn’t come anywhere close to it…


Anti-systemic-racism in Canada needs to include Indigenous people as well as Blacks

On Thursday, June 18, 2020, I sent an email letter to the recently-minted Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism. I addressed this letter to Andy Radia of Kingsdale Advisors, who is identified as the contact for the CCBLAABSR. I have so far not received a reply but when I do I will post it here.

Hi Andy:

On its face, I applaud this initiative. However, in Canada, while racism targeting blacks is most definitely a “thing”, this is, in fact, Canada and racism against Indigenous people has been a destructive part of our reality since before Confederation .

Without intending to be argumentative, I would appreciate knowing your organization’s response to that reality.


Peter Kingsmill

COVID-19 shows us how we could meet better

April 2, 2020:  A great many planned face-to-face meetings are being replaced by webinars or teleconferences because of the pandemic. I guess folks are scared of catching the virus, so they plan other ways to accomplish what they need to do. So I was a little taken aback when I read today that United Nations officials have postponed COP26 (the international climate talks scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland) as a result of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

I do understand the caution. But what I do not understand is why COP26 was not restructured as a web-conference. Seems like an ideal justification for the climate change scientists and proponents to practice what they preach rather than fly people all over the world to conferences. Embrace the technology and hold the meetings remotely; who knows, you might save not only yourselves from getting COVID-19, but also the rest of us from totally unnecessary GHGs.

Better ways to meet…

Reflections on the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal…”

As far as its relationship to the fundamental teachings of Jesus, in whose name it was built (to the actual glory of princes and kings and bishops and popes and almost certainly built by underpaid labour) Notre Dame Cathedral has consumed money and resources and emotions that would (always) have been better directed elsewhere.

However, taking those harsh thoughts out of the equation, it was a magnificent building, a tribute to its builders and a thing of beauty for all of us to share. A very sad day was April 16th!


A Guide to Mismanaging Plastic Waste

Canadians are wonderfully warm-hearted and civically-minded people. After all, nothing feels more satisfying than making a charitable donation to an organization working to remove plastic waste from the world’s oceans; those images of sickly or dead whales and dolphins choking on plastic sandwich wrap and beach sandals are pretty hard to stomach (so to speak!) We also love our politics, and  notwithstanding lobbying against carbon taxes, most Canadians would voice their support for “polluter-pay” legislation (certainly as long as the polluters are not ourselves, of course!)

And therein hangs a tale. We purchase cute recycled plastic bracelets and dredge up “Free Willy” from our childhood movie collection in the forlorn hope that we are somehow helping to stem the scourge of mismanaged plastics. Not.

Consider this: according to the Wall Street Journal, 2010 figures show that 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from China with an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ending up in the ocean. You can add a similar amount from the other Asiatic coastal countries. The United States is also guilty of polluting oceans with plastic, but at a mere 0.11 million metric tons. While one can argue that even a pick-up truck load is too much, Canada doesn’t even make it to the chart. So much for polluter-pay!

And so much for even taking care of our own plastic waste: as little as three years ago, we used to rely on Asia – in particular China – to take care of our Canadian plastic waste. We would sort it away from our landfills, load it into containers and ship them across the Pacific – despite the fact that plastic waste from the destination countries themselves was being dumped into that very same ocean, and headed east to our very own shores. Of course, China was being very cooperative, returning much of our recycled plastic to Canada as manufactured goods so cheap as to undercut the stuff we manufacture at home.

Now, China has decided to clean up its act with its new “Green Sword” program, banning all imports of waste plastic. Now, much of North American plastic waste is stranded and the comparatively few American recyclers of waste plastic simply don’t have the capacity to handle it all. And the prices have tanked, so to make matters worse, municipal recycling programs are everywhere from challenged to permanently shut down. Even at the 16 to 43 Waste Management Corporation’s facility at the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve, Site Manager Todd Linsley says that recyclable plastic wastes  are being baled and stored under cover along with paper and cardboard in hopes of future solutions: “The only other option at the moment is putting it into the landfill, but we are doing everything within our power to avoid that.”

The bigger the worser, apparently. Journalist Michael Corkery reported in the New York Times (March 19, 2019) that Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. “In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.” According to Corkery, hundreds of towns and cities across the country have either cancelled recycling programs outright or limited the types of material they accept.

Chris Cui, director of China Programs for Closed Loop Partners, says companies in the United States and China can help each other: “Recycling companies in China have long played the role of outsourced recycling processors for countries such as the U.S.,” Closed Loop Partners is an investment firm that provides capital to recycling-related enterprises.

“Chinese companies have the capability to process material at relatively low cost. The U.S., on the other hand, is far more advanced in collection and transportation of recyclables, and this is a gap,” Cui said from the stage of the Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, held in Maryland, USA, in late March. “The gap can be bridged by connecting recycling operators in both countries, so they can share knowledge and resources.”

According to an article in Plastics Recycling Update (Resource Recycling Inc.), Closed Loop Partners launched its China Programs department last year following China’s ban on imports of many categories of recyclables. Director Cui continued: “… we see there is a huge opportunity after the ban for us over there, and we want to build a bridge for the industry here in the U.S. to work together with their counterparts in China and the rest of Asia.”

Cui suggested that plastic not currently being recycled in the U.S. and China represents over $230 billion in potential value. “ Chinese companies have a lot of challenges when they come to the U.S., culturally,” she said. “You can invest in a plant, but how do you make sure that the management team is up and running? How do you make sure you know how to work with the local state, the local government? How can you identify which area is the best for you to set up your plant? You have to consider the transportation, do you have enough feedstock, if there’s any tax incentive opportunity zone, those are the kinds of value you can add to the Chinese players that are coming over here.”

Just as our own failures to make any real attempts to deal with fresh water pollution and climate change are increasingly threatening Canada’s economy and our way of life, it appears that decades of inaction on properly addressing waste reduction and materials recycling may well be the next major challenge to building and maintaining a healthy society. It would be ironic if, having unloaded our waste plastic problem onto China for decades, we are forced to allow them to provide solutions within our own country. We really do need to be careful, and to do better.

Peter Kingsmill is a recipient of the Governor General’s Conservation Award and past chair and founder of the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve in Saskatchewan

Where the heck is Awan Lake anyway?

I thought long and hard about where I would set my first novel. I wanted a location that I knew so I could build the story and characters around familiar surroundings, and my own passion for small communities near inland lakes and rivers suggested my two favourite lakes: Big Rideau Lake along a canal system in eastern Ontario where I spent some time growing up, and Redberry Lake, close to where I now live in Saskatchewan and which has been somewhat of an obsession for over 30 years.

So, Why not choose Redberry Lake? I hear my neighbours asking. Well, one reason is, in fact, my neighbours: there are not enough of them! No matter how many disclaimers are present (like All characters are fictional, and any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental) people in a small community are inclined to recognize themselves or their neighbours, for better or for worse! And with good reason: a storyteller – certainly this one – usually draws heavily on past experience.

There were other, more technical reasons. I wanted a setting with a lakeside community. My home town in Saskatchewan (Hafford) is 10 kilometers away from the lake, and there is no harbour. Also, I wanted the looming presence of a controversial industry located on a substantial waterway. That is not to say that the industrialized agriculture around Redberry Lake  isn’t controversial and may not impact the water, but optically it is framed as a peaceful rural area with tractors and cows spread out for miles and miles!

So I looked at Big Rideau Lake as an option: Lakeside community – check; Harbour – check; Substantial waterway – check; Nobody knows me – check. Things that are missing: Familiar surroundings – in deep memory only. Controversial industry – not at all sure.

Hmm. I need to create a community like Portland-on-the-Rideau, but not there. I need to create a lake that is larger than Big Rideau, but more remote. I need to name this lake. Foggy Lake – boring. Hey – Awan is foggy in Ojibwe so there we go: Awan Lake. I need to name the town – I knew a town in Alberta called Spirit River. There isn’t one in Ontario by that name, and that way I also get a name for the river that feeds and drains Awan Lake. Check!

So there you go, I have a place for my characters to live their lives and get involved in mysteries, and I won’t insult anyone. Welcome to Spirit River at Awan Lake, which is now as imprinted on my soul as Portland-on-the-Rideau is, in my fondest memories!


Sunset at 20:47 is the first novel in the Awan Lake series and is available in print through Amazon and as an e-book (cheaper!) pretty well anywhere. Nobody Drowned is book number two and is slated for release in March. You can find more information at www.peterkingsmill.ca

Do we need immigrants in Canada?

It is difficult to define the impact of immigration to Canada without starting at the (apparent) beginning, when a handful of explorers and opportunists from Britain and France began what became a ceaseless invasion of this country. Doubtless our indigenous inhabitants were curious (and probably amused) and welcoming to these strange new people with strange new customs – at least until greed surfaced, the guns came out, and the handful of economic refugees became a wave of people backed by armies and navies fighting battles that had their roots in other lands. The waves kept coming: more Brits, more French, then Germans, Italians and Irish, according to ruling government priorities to settle a vast landscape and harvest rich natural resources. The Chinese came – to build railways as slave labour – and eastern Europeans came in waves to develop farmlands and build and protect a new economy.

Although our original residents have good reason to doubt this, apparently we have always needed more people, and statistically we still do if we are to continue to grow our economy in the way we have become accustomed. Immigration, however, has become a source of debate (which is proper) and division (which is not). I thought I would ask someone who works extensively with immigrants to Canada, every day, for his perspectives, and it is his comments which form today’s blog:

Phil Nelson is the founder and CEO of Smiley’s Buffet and Event Centre and Flavours Catering in Saskatoon. It has been my privilege and pleasure to have been a corporate client of Mr Nelson’s business establishment over several years, and I have been struck by his lasting business relationship with his staff and colleagues, almost all of whom are immigrants, and in many cases fairly recent immigrants. Given the negative rhetoric in the media (and the political class) surrounding immigration and whether it’s a good thing for Canada, I thought it would be useful to get his long view on the subject.

Me:  Ever since I first met you, Phil, I have been aware that you consistently engage relatively recent immigrants, in all positions from service staff to kitchen to management. I expect that was a management decision at some point; why – and how long ago – did you arrive at that decision?

PN:  Yes we made a decision about 15 years ago to use foreign workers. We were finding it very difficult to find skilled workers for the service industry. Our company employs approximately 115 – 120 employees and we were struggling to fill all the positions. We searched out a credible company to help us find workers and have been using them ever since.

Me:  I assume, given the nature of food service businesses in general, that the majority of your new hires start at entry-level positions – positions often referred to as “Mac-jobs”.  Do you find a lot of staff turnover?

PN: We do have a lot of entry level positions that we fill with part time students. We are finding that the turnover of staff is decreasing from previous years. This is due to creating a good working environment, paying above average wages and offering benefits. Most of our foreign workers are in more of our skilled positions.

Me:  From my own experience, Canadian-born workers – especially younger ones – consider working in service industries as somehow “low class” and merely a stepping stone to a “real job”. I am sure many immigrants, too, are either studying and need work or are hoping that someday they can move into other workplaces, but somehow it seems they have less disdain for service work. Is that what your experience tells you?

PN: That is what the perception is and may be correct in some instances. As a Canadian born worker you have the choice to work anywhere you want and sometimes grass seems greener on the other side so they may bounce around to many jobs. As an employer we take note of that when they list all the places they have worked  on their resume and may not choose them for a position as we feel they are not committed long term. When you hire a foreign worker they are generally signed on for a minimum two-year commitment to your company. They do have an option to quit if they feel that the position isn’t for them but it is very difficult to find another company to take over their contract. If they are unable to find another company they would have to return to their home country. As Canadians we have been very fortunate to be able to find work; most of the foreign workers are leaving their countries due to a shortage of work or even very dangerous places to live. When they arrive in Canada and see the amount of opportunity to work they are very thankful to have a good job and a stable country to live in. In general they are more willing to take the time to work their way up a company ladder to find themselves a better living. We have some workers that came to us a labourers and now are in our management system.

Me:  You get to know many of your staff pretty well. Talk to me about their dreams and ambitions.

PN: For sure, we definitely get to know our employees. It’s like having an extended family. Dreams and ambitions are different for each age group. The younger high school or university kids are mostly looking for some spending money while they study for their trade. The older staff are looking to have a career to support their families. Our foreign workers are here trying to create a new life for themselves and their families.

Me:  Today I read an article pointing out that research in the European Union shows that – over a 30-year span – waves of immigration into EU countries have produced corresponding upticks in the economy and reductions in unemployment. A similar outcome was found recently in Ontario after the provincial government there raised the minimum wage amidst cries of doom and outrage from business associations and the government opposition (which is now in power and apparently  wants to drop the minimum wage). Obviously you pay your staff fair wages or they wouldn’t stick around (as I know they do!) Are there obvious – or even subtle – linkages between pay and immigration in our country?

PN: Those are some interesting facts! First of all, most of our minimum wage employees enjoy an uptake in their wages through our tip program. If there are any employees who are not a part of the tipping program they are paid a substantial amount above the minimum wage. All foreign workers are paid based on their contracted wage, which is set by the government.  As far as pay and immigration, I would say there certainly is an impact on employment. As I stated earlier, as an employer we know we are guaranteed to be able to keep a foreign worker for a minimum of two years. A local worker may take the time to be trained and then move onto a different company much sooner. As well we know that the foreign workers’ pay is also set for that time, whereas the local worker may hold you for ransom if they find another company that will pay them more.  Although I make it sound like hiring foreign workers is the best avenue to take, a company has to do its due diligence and try to fill positions with local workers before the government will allow you to apply for a foreign worker.

Me:  Most articles I have read on the subject – most recently in The Economist – point out that Canada has a shrinking labour force and that our economy will be in trouble because of that, as soon as a decade from now. I would love to hear your opinion, as a business owner and a successful CEO, about why immigration is such a hot button issue in our otherwise stable and prosperous country.

PN: I would say we have been very fortunate to be able to find good long-time workers over the past ten years. Over the ten years before that, it was very difficult to keep enough good employees to run a business. The foreign workers program has certainly helped in that area.
It is certainly a hot button issue with a lot of workers, as they feel they are being replaced by foreign workers. In some cases this may be true but I can only speak for myself and say that we exhaust all options to hire local first. It is a costly proposition to bring in a foreign worker but the results speak for themselves. My business is successful because we put out a consistently good product. To do that we must have consistent staffing, hence that is why we will pay the extra costs of bringing in workers who are guaranteed to stay longer.

Me: Thank-you, Phil!

You can leave a comment (see link at the top left side of this column) and you can visit my website and learn about my novels at www.peterkingsmill.ca



Awan Lake: on planning a novel (!)

I’ve really only just started work on my second novel. Awan Lake was the working title of my first book as I was writing it, and it stayed that way until I wrote “End” on the last page, when I realized I had created a mystery with a two-week time-line that finished at sundown just after quarter to nine (20:47 navy time). Changing the book’s title was an instant decision: Sunset at 20:47. Seemed so logical, I could hardly believe it was my idea; I certainly didn’t plan it that way.

In case you hadn’t noticed, “plan” is a four-letter word. At a number of points in my varied career, I have been involved with developing plans: business plans, marketing plans and community development plans. I have sometimes had the dubious pleasure of doing this work for people who used a lot of four-letter words but none of them was the word “plan”. One fellow even explained his hatred of the planning process as follows: “I hate f**king plans; every time I plan something it f**king screws up!”

Perhaps he had something there. For me, writing a novel can often feel like walking a tightrope in a wind storm: the plan is straightforward – get to the other end – but an awful lot can happen along the way. So I don’t plan my novels; I just start at the beginning and build from there. However, I do like my characters from Sunset at 20:47: Anderson is like a special friend I am lucky to have met, and Marjorie is a person he needs in his life. Arnold and Marion are two of those salt-of-the-earth people we are all lucky to find in our own neighbourhoods (and their neighbourhood is typical of most rural villages in Canada if not everywhere: welcoming but cautious, proud of its past and worried about its future!)

So here I go again. I like my lake and my village and I know my main characters have more stories to tell. And so, again, the working title is Awan Lake but you can be almost certain that will change!

(And oh yes, I plan to have it published in January. But you know how plans are… please stay with me!)



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Nothing new: religion, culture and conflict in 2018

Over the last week, the international news media have once again underscored the depths of depravity to which the world’s religions can descend. Nothing new, perhaps, but so much at once: paedophilia rampant among Pennsylvania’s Catholic clergy; escalating internecine warfare between Islamic sects in the Middle East; murderous conflict between Buddhists, Hindu and Muslim communities in Myanmar.

I confess to having little proficiency in religious studies. I have spent far too long trying to understand my own stumbling faith as a follower of Christ to have the temerity to comment on other faiths (including atheism which is, after all, another belief system). However, one thing I observe – naively perhaps – is that none of the preeminent religions of the world have at their foundations a doctrine of violence. Quite the contrary in fact, notwithstanding their religious writings being records of battles, punishment and – yes – misogyny. (One can only guess that religious scriptures were developed and written by men in an effort to re-make God in their own image: masculine and all-powerful!)

Conflict, it seems, stems from such cultural differences, and violence is born as a manipulation of cultural differences driven by greed. Cross-cultural differences wilt in the face of education – not just “book learning”, but being exposed to the cultures of other people and sharing knowledge and understanding with one another. It is that learned wisdom that can act as a prophylactic against the wicked, who thrive on achieving (or maintaining) power using the tools of division and fear.

Our cultures draw from our past, and are to be celebrated, shared, and never debated. The only debates worth having are about our future.