Friday, 31 October 2014

Silver Lining in Tragedy - Canadian Culture On Full Display

On Wednesday, Oct. 22, Canada experienced a tragedy in the nation's capital. Lone gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, attacked the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill, killing 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo who was standing guard at the memorial.

This occurred two days after two soldiers were victims in a hit-and-run attack in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. One of those soldiers, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53, was killed in the attack. He had been serving in the military for 28 years and considering retirement according to CBC News.

Canadian media has covered both of these tragedies in great depth, so I won't get into the details.

What struck me and many others, both in Canada and abroad, was the way that the Canadian public and the Canadian media has reacted to these tragedies. One picture that I retweeted showed the general reaction well.

We're not immune to fear-mongering or anti-Islam sentiment, but Canadian culture quickly refuted those sentiments. All our political leaders spoke out in support of the greater Islamic-Canadian community, despite both of the perpetrators referring to themselves as Muslim.
In a small town in Alberta, a mosque was defaced, but within hours friendly Canadians came out to clean up the vandalism.

My last example of Canadian culture came a day after Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was buried in his home-town of Hamilton, Ontario. Omar Albach, 18, a Canadian of Palestinian descent, joined a couple York University friends to launch a "social experiment." In Hamilton, he had a Caucasian class-mate make anti-Islam comments towards Zakaria Ghanem, who was dressed in full traditional Islamic garb called a Thobe, with the intent of recording the reactions of Hamilton residents. 
They did get reactions, but perhaps not what they were prepared for. All the people they show in the video react with disgust towards the xenophobic comments and the most extreme reaction actually leads to a guy cursing at the man acting as a xenophobe and ultimately punching him in the face.
The back-story and video of the social experiment can be read here:

The 'social experiment' video is here:

The silver lining of these tragedies has shown the best of Canadian culture and we should all be proud that this message has been relayed across the world. Americans talked about our calm media coverage in the face of tragedy and this social experiment video has gone viral internationally. 
Through all the ugliness of the last two weeks, Canada's multicultural and welcoming values have not been shaken.

Read here for a breakdown of last week's tragedies:  

UPDATE: Interesting historical perspective on Politico, "Canada's Stiff Upper Lip": 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Winnipeg's 21st CE Candidate for Mayor, Robert-Falcon Ouellette

As a political junkie, I am encouraged by the genuine excitement and real emotions that are swirling around Winnipeg's Cree mayoral candidate, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, heading into tomorrow's election. His Cree heritage is symbolized by his long pony-tail that he keeps nicely braided as well as his choice in clothing. It's this unapologetic cultural pride that is forcing many Aboriginals to take notice, and non-Aboriginals to stop and analyze this new kind of political candidate.

This point is well-illustrated by a poignant story that Robert described to me after the, "Youth Vital Signs Mayoral Forum," at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Oct. 16.

I asked him about a question that was fielded by candidate Brian Bowman, how would he deal with racial discrimination in Winnipeg? In response, Ouellette said that it's mostly a matter of cross-cultural communication and learning, which he would promote through mixed-income communities and affordable home developments.

Robert recalled one of his first days on the campaign trail, campaigning at Winnipeg's Grant Park shopping mall when he went to shake the hand of a middle-aged man. "I can't shake your hand, you Indians are part of the problem," Robert recalled the man saying, "You're all corrupt and I don't want someone like you as mayor, because you're the problem with this city."

Instead of being offended and walking away, Robert actually reasoned with this man and told him about his life in the military and academia. Astounded by Ouellette's PHD and service to the country, this man apologized for his racist outburst and asked Ouellette for his card. A week later, the same man showed up at a debate with a few friends who were all looking to support the campaign.

We are witnessing the evolution of 21st century Canadian politics and I can't help but make comparisons to Pres. Barack Obama in the United States. I have seen the emotional posts on Facebook from indigenous people who feel like they have found a new role model and now believe that they can be a part of the political process for the first time. I've also heard a story from an Ouellette supporter about an elderly Cree grandmother who cried after casting her vote for Ouellette. It was her first time ever voting in any election.

This campaign, in my opinion, is a testament to the evolving Canadian culture. You can see it in the increase of female and minority representatives in politics, but the growing influence of First Nations people has been slow and is still hotly debated especially in Manitoba.

There are plenty of other intelligent, well-spoken and genuinely compassionate First Nations leaders across this country. Through cross-cultural dialogue, Robert-Falcon Ouellette is showing that they do have a place in the push for equal representation in Canadian politics.

After all, First Nations people form the foundation of Canadian culture. Their culture, from arts to their vernacular, is deeply entrenched in Canadian society, despite what many people may think. It is time for their political voice to be heard, so that this culture can finally have a seat at the table of our nation's decision-makers.

This is what I, and thousands of others, see in Robert-Falcon Ouellette's mayoral bid.

Mayoral Candidate, Robert-Falcon Ouellette describes his plans for Light Rail Transit in Winnipeg
at a meet & greet at a supporter's house on Oct.15, 2014
Ouellette shares his ideas with some decided and undecided voters
at a meet & greet at a supporter's house on Oct. 15, 2014

Friday, 17 October 2014

Sikhism in Manitoba - #CultureOfTheWeek

Sikhism in Manitoba

Sikhism is the fourth-largest religion in India, with its roots in the Punjab province over 500 years ago. To get a better understanding of the religion, I sat down with Chanpreet Singh, or Channing as is friends call him, who has only been in Manitoba for just under two years.

He told me about the beliefs of Sikhism being guided by their ten gurus, starting with the founder Guru Nanak. I learned that Sikhs are monotheist, meaning they believe in only one God. "We believe that God is one divine power, it has no shape or colour or race; It could be Jesus or it could be Allah, but it is the same for everybody," said Channing. In this way, the religion is nothing like the majority-religion of Hinduism in India.

"Sikhism is based on three pillars: contemplating God's name, working diligently and sharing with others," explained Channing. There are also five major sins to avoid: lust, anger, greed, attachment and selfish pride. "Sikh means student," said Channing before explaining that Sikhism is about respecting all of humanity and living life to learn how to be a better person.

The most identifiable characteristic of any Sikh man is the turban he wears. "Sikhism is based on natural things, and according to our Guru Nanak any human should not cut hair because it is a natural thing that is given by God," said Channing. Other identifiable characteristics include a bracelet worn on the right wrist, called the Kara, and a dagger called the Kirpan.

There is also a strong military element to Sikhism stemming from the fact that they have often had to fight against outside forces in the northern region of India. Some members carry the Kirpan as a symbol of this history in their religion. Channing did not emphasize this part of the religion during our sit-down, but he acknowledges its importance to the Sikh culture.

Mr. Singh came to Manitoba through the sponsorship program shortly after he graduated with a Bachelor of Technology in India. He spoke about how Sikhs are a minority in India and they are stigmatized because of this, especially due to being a monotheist religion among the polytheist Hindu majority. Landing in Manitoba in January of 2013, Channing recently finished a network systems administration course at Winnipeg Technical College and is now selling technology for Staples.

"It was hard for me at the starting, because of the freezing temperature and it took some time to get to know the different customs," said Channing. He says he'd love to live in Manitoba permanently because of the multicultural society and his positive relationships with people.

There are nearly 500,000 Sikhs in Canada and they are credited with being among the first immigrants from South Asia. Their history includes an embarrassing incident in Canada's past.

In 1914 the Komagata Maru, a ship full of 340 Sikhs who identified as British subjects, was forced to turn around because the federal government did not welcome them, despite being British subjects just like all Canadians at that time.

Canada has come a long way since then and Sikhs now have deep roots that continue to contribute to the cultural tapestry of our nation.

Chanpreet Singh, aka Channing, aka Channing Tatum
And ladies, he's single!

Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet, 1914
Library and Archives Canada)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Coptic Orthodox Church - Culture Of The Week

St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Winnipeg
Coptic is the language of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

This was the first of many interesting facts I learned during my 20 minute sit-down with Father Marcos Farag, the Parish Priest at Winnipeg's St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church. "Coptic means Egyptian, but nowadays specifically it is for the Christian parts of Egypt," said Father Marcos.

The artwork that lines the walls are as beautiful as the hieroglyphs themselves, with an unmistakably Egyptian character and beautifully rich colours, all including some shimmering gold accent. The building they have is massive, with many different rooms for services and prayers.

Fr. Marcos explained how the Coptic Church was founded by St. Mark himself in the first century, specifically around the year 60 A.D. Making the Coptic Orthodox Church one of the oldest Christian denominations that dates back to soon after the life of Jesus Christ. Other "sister-churches" include the Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

From my Canadian Roman Catholic perspective, I couldn't help but try to compare these African & Middle Eastern churches to those in Europe. According to Fr. Marcos the understanding of the dogma is the same, "but the formula sometimes is different." While I tried to dig for some of these differences, it became clear that Fr. Marcos would rather emphasize the fact that all Christians share the same central belief - "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Salvation," said Fr. Marcos.

He then told me a bit about his life before the priesthood, when he was a biomedical engineer in Egypt before he found his calling. He proudly tells me about being married with two daughters, who are in architecture and dentistry. This family aspect is one interesting difference between Catholic and the Coptic Orthodox priesthood.

There are around 270 families who attend the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Winnipeg, most of whom speak Arabic or English. The prayers are done in Coptic, while the rest of the service is either in English or Arabic, depending on your preference. Fr. Marcos cited Manitoba's nominee program as a big reason for the Coptic community's continued growth, saying many are pharmacists or physicians who are able to get their licenses in Manitoba. He also said that his family and others feel very welcome in Manitoba and are happy to call this province home.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II & Roman Catholic Pope Francis
Photo Credit: Reuters/Andreas Solaro
The Coptic Orthodox Church has been active in Canada for 50 years, which prompted a rare visit to Canada by the Coptic Pope Tawadros II who stayed in Winnipeg for one day. During his time here, he laid the cornerstone for the new church that is being built on the property of the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church. Pope Tawadros II travelled to every Coptic Orthodox Church in Canada from September 3rd to September 29th, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Church in Canada.

Fr. Marcos tells me how in years past, many Coptic Christians fled Egypt to come to Canada for more safety and freedom, but he is also optimistic that Egypt is much better now and the Coptic community, which is %20 of the country, is very proud. Then he explained how the Coptic people are the native inhabitants of Egypt before a major influx of Arabs started in the seventh century. Prior to that demographic change, Egypt was nearly %100 Christian, which was news to me.

And so it went, Father Marcos Farag really expanded my understanding of early Christianity. He invited me to a big festival they host on the first of June, marking the visit of the 'Holy Family' to Egypt, referring to Jesus' early years when Mary & Joseph fled to Egypt to escape King Herod of Judea. 

I will have to take him up on that invitation and I'd urge you to check it out too. The Coptic Orthodox Church gives you a glimpse of Egypt as you may have never imagined. The rich history and beautiful artwork on display shows the visitor a view of Egypt that you won't get from the media. I am grateful to Fr. Marcos for this enlightening interview and I told him I'd try to make it down there for a service one Sunday soon. 

Let me know what you think! Leave a comment or message me on Twitter @D_A_Koroma. 

Father Marcos Farag, Parish Priest
Father Marcos describes the journey of the Holy Family
Coptic depiction of Saints Anthony & Paul

One of several chapels in the building, adorned with Coptic art.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Introducing: Culture Of The Week

Photo credit:
Starting Sunday, this blog will be interviewing a member of a specific cultural group with the goal of informing readers about different religions and cultures that call Canada home. The subjects of the interviews will vary from leaders of their community to everyday people.

This segment is called 'Culture of the Week' and I'll always be open to requests if any readers want to suggest an interesting person or culture to look into. This is a kind of selfish endeavour because I've always had an interest in world religions and all the different cultures who share this planet. I'm going to enjoy reaching out to community leaders and learning about their culture and also hearing their stories of how and why they chose to come to Canada.

In some cases, the culture I choose may be well-established in Canada going back over a century, while in other cases they may be a community that includes very few second-generation Canadians.

The goal of this research is to create a fuller understanding of Canadian culture. I'll always ask how this person feels they fit into Canadian society, with the goal of getting different perspectives of our country.

First up, I had the pleasure of interviewing Father Marcos Farag, a priest at Winnipeg's St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church. This was an enlightening interview for me and I look forward to sharing our conversation this Sunday.

Do you have a culture you think I should research? Hit me up on Twitter @D_A_Koroma with the hashtag #CultureOfTheWeek!