A good-news story about aboriginals! (my take on the reserve system and why it needs to be scrapped)

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Do we have a caste system in Canada? Many Canadians would be shocked at the very idea, because this is Canada! We send aid all around the world, and welcome newcomers of all kinds! Our healthcare, welfare and parental benefits are generous. Education is free to all! True …. but, in my opinion, a caste system exists. People can be forgiven for forgetting; in most of Canada, members of the lowest caste are invisible. Most of them are neatly tucked away in the wilderness, many of their communities accessible only by boat or plane. Oh, sure, we hear about them from time to time. Usually bad news. Kids huffing gasoline. Women going missing at an alarming rate. Angry warriors blocking roads and burning vehicles. I am talking, of course, about aboriginals. The people who were here before Europeans arrived. The people who were murdered, infected and starved into submission, then parcelled out to remote tracts of land unwanted by their conquerors. For decades afterwards, the Canadian government’s primary involvement with aboriginals was throwing money at them and stealing their children to populate the infamous residential schools.

Cue the righteous-but-resentful indignition …. But they get free housing! Free glasses and dental care! Tax-free gas and smokes! Free university education! Never mind that nearly half of them don’t graduate from highschool anyway, therefore saving grumbling taxpayers oodles of money. They also are more likely to commit suicide, and even if they live a long, full life, it’s shorter than the average Canadian’s. More savings! Their teen pregnancy rate is higher, but don’t worry – even though residential schools no longer exist, we still get alot of their children. Despite representing only about 4% of the Canadian population, their children make up roughly half of the children currently in foster care. Natives are also over-represented in Canada’s prisons. They are more likely to die violently than other Canadians, and more likely to be abused or abusive before they do. Which brings me to a soapbox I’ve occupied for years …. Reservations don’t help aboriginals, and the reserve system should be abolished.

Conditions on reserves are often little better than third-world. Think about Sheshatshiu. Kashechewan. Attawapiskat. All the money the Canadian government gives them never seems to be enough to buy a better standard of living. Natives on reserve are treated like wards of the government. Sure, their housing is free – but it’s not theirs, nor is the land it sits on. And none of the people footing the bill would ever want to live there. Neither did aboriginals, but that’s where they ended up – because that’s where the brand-new country of Canada put them.

Yesterday, as usual, my beloved Saturday paper arrived at my house. Thick and wordy, solid, filled with enough content to chew on for an entire weekend. In this particular paper, there was a rare thing: a good-news story about Canadian aboriginals, happening right here in Ottawa. The article began with the experience of an Inuit woman, Lynda Brown, who moved to Ottawa as a child. Her mother was informed that she could not send her child to school in “slippers”, so Lynda took off her mukluks and started claiming Chinese heritage to avoid the shame of admitting that she is Inuit. Fast-forward to today, and Lynda Brown is proud of her identity and culture. She wears a t-shirt that says “Lifelong Urban Inuk”. The article goes on to describe how this change came about. Ottawa is home to roughly 3,000 Inuit, the largest population of them south of Nunavut. Ottawa is also home to an Inuit health centre, daycare, kindergarten and after-school program. Not only do Inuit children receive the usual standard of education, and help with their homework, but they also learn about their culture. They are taught in both English and Inuktitut. They learn traditional drumming and dancing, as well as throat-singing, and how to play traditional Inuit games. They play with the classic toys your average Canadian knows and loves, but also with traditional Inuit toys made of stone, bone and skins. Inuit people are living in Canada’s capital city, with all kinds of people – not just other Inuit. They can buy properly priced groceries instead of $28 jugs of orange juice – and they can buy traditional Inuit foods like char, seal and whale. They can travel wherever they want without the expense and hassle of leaving a remote area. They can train and apply for a wide array of jobs – not just what’s available in Iqualuit and surrounding areas. Their children are able to play soccer and learn ballet, to visit libraries and museums and parks. In short, they are learning how to be both proud Inuit people and fully engaged Canadian citizens.

Are there problems in Ottawa’s Inuit community? Of course. Their levels of addiction, prostitution and family problems are higher than the general population – but significantly lower than that of their fellow natives who live on reserves. And, as they continue to take advantage of what’s always been available to the rest of us, I predict that the gap will narrow. Perhaps we can even hope for its closure. I wish our Inuit neighbours great success, and I hope that, someday, all aboriginals will be able to do what they are doing. Only when aboriginals leave their reserves and join Canadian society, fully recognized and enfranchised, will we be able to proudly say that Canada doesn’t have a caste system.

When in Cuba ….

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To anyone who put their entire existence on hold waiting for my next post …. I’m back! (Oh, and that should be everyone! Right? Right? Hey, are those crickets ….?) I was in Cuba for a week. Warm, sunny, salty Cayo Coco. After living in God’s freezer for months, it was heavenly. It was an adventure for our whole family. For one thing, since our car isn’t waterproof, we couldn’t take one of our epic road trips to get there – so we took our first flight together since 2009. Fiona was three and Bridget was one when we flew to Newfoundland for my brother’s wedding, and we were so traumatized by the horror of flying with two toddlers that it has taken us six years to gather the courage to do it again. For another thing, Fiona and Bridget had never been south of Miami – never mind a tropical island. There was a little reef on the left side of the beach where we saw schools of beautiful fish, and a huge red starfish. Pelicans skimmed the water just a few feet away, scooping up the unlucky critters swimming too close to the surface. They had also never experienced the lavishness of an all-inclusive resort.  We all sharpened our limited Spanish a little with the servers and staff.

Needless to say, we had all looked forward to this trip. The day we told the girls we were going, 54 days before take-off, they squealed, squacked, squeaked and squeeed. (Not a word, you say? Well, it is now.) Then they made a countdown chart. Sadly, they started at the wrong end, so every time they crossed out a number they had to subtract the number of crossed-out numbers from 54. Taking a sunny vacation and practicing arithmetic – how’s that for multi-tasking?

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I was just as excited as they were, and Ryan was almost there, too (he’s not big on heat or swimming – but he loves a chance to take off on an adventure as much as any of us). At times, though, it seemed that our excitement was rivaled only by the zeal with which people set out to dampen it.

Oh, Cuba – don’t expect good service, they’re all on island time. Cuba? Bring snacks; the food is awful. You’re going to Cuba – you’ll enjoy yourselves, but it’ll be a step down from any other island you may have visited. Bring toilet paper, and just close your eyes whenever you use the washroom. Well, at least Cuba is cheap …. Just remember, you get what you pay for.

Many people were excited on our behalf, of course, and celebrated the news of our impending escape from the latest ice-pocalypse with us. Thank you, all you rays of sunshine! You know who you are. However, as everybody knows, negative voices last longer in our minds than positive ones, and I was really getting annoyed by all the Eeyores around me.

Well, now that I’ve returned, I’m here to offer my opinion (the only one that matters in the world of BethBlog): Cuba was wonderful. We swam in the ocean every day, between bouts of lounging on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. The pools were large and just the right temperature to be refreshing without being chilly – and they were very clean, considering that they were used by droves of sweaty, sunscreen-coated people every day. There was a show every night, presented by a crowd of very talented (and beautiful) young people. Latin dancing, a Michael Jackson tribute, a couple of pool parties. The sexy man / woman competitions were just plain cheesy, and probably would have been deeply embarrassing had the participants been sober. The last show, though, was spectacular. It was performed in the pool. The women danced on the shoulders of the men, who were standing chest-deep in the pool. They danced on the back of a woman who was being held by a row of men. They formed pyramids and dove from the top. Then, they sashayed out of the water and danced some more, poolside. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy. Those smiling girls can dance on their smiling wet colleagues, but I can’t get through a week without breaking a glass ….

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The lobby, bars and restaurants were all nicely decorated and breezy. The piano bar piano, though badly out-of-tune, was tickled by a very fine player. In fact, we bought Masai’s CD. The CD was recorded using an in-tune piano, which showcases his skills nicely. The resort staff were friendly and affectionate, and many went out of their way to make sure we were having a good time. If I ordered wine at any of the restaurants, my glass was never empty for more than five minutes. Some of them remembered my drink preference from day to day, and would greet me with a playful “hola, vino blanco”. They treated Fiona and Bridget especially well, telling them how beautiful they are, pinching their cheeks and patting their heads, crafting flowers out of paper or palms for their hair.

And – are you ready? Ok. There really wasn’t anything wrong with the food. In fact, I ate something different every day, and found a few favourites I returned for over and over. The omelette bar, pasta bar and pizza bar were great. The buffet offered a dizzying array of desserts at lunch and dinner. There was a restaurant on the beach, with a view of the ocean, that served tasty pizzas. There was an Italian place, and a Japanese place, with fixed menus. We liked the Italian place so much we went there for two of our six dinners. The Japanese place offered show-cooking. Chopping and tossing meat, and giving us a chance to catch it on skewers, drawing a picture on the grill with eggs, shaping a mound of rice into a heart, sending flames three feet into the air. The end result was enjoyed by our whole group.

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There was a beer garden, open 24/7, serving burgers and hotdogs, and hand-cut fries.The hotdogs were as good as any you’d order in a ballpark. The last two days of our stay, the beer garden served beer-battered fish so tender and flavourful that everyone ordered seconds. There were beach-and-pool-side grills serving ribs and chicken. There was an ice cream shop painted in bright colours, from which the girls ordered many cool, smooth treats.

Were some things not-so-great at Hotel Playa Coco? Sure. The public washrooms were, at times, atrocious. To be fair, though, they were being used all day every day by a whole lot of entitled (and often drunk) tourists who didn’t feel any sense of ownership or courtesy. Most of us clean up after ourselves wherever we are, but it’s tough to keep up with the ones who don’t. Depending on where you ordered a coffee or drink, it might take the servers a while to come back around to you – but they always did. I never went without anything I asked for, and they were always aware of time, and apologetic if I had to wait longer than a few minutes. The jerk who ran the wine bar tried to overcharge us, arguing about the number of glasses consumed by our group. This was settled, and we moved on. On the last day, we ordered a shuttle to take us and our luggage to the lobby. It took forever (and multiple pestering phone calls and desk visits) to arrive. We set out with our luggage ourselves, and were quickly helped by two resort employees voluntarily. However, this isn’t unique to Cuba – I’ve been bilked in many parts of the world, including right here in Ottawa, and I’ve been helped many times by kind people who really didn’t have to. There was very little orange juice. You might get a glass of it at breakfast, but you probably wouldn’t. Milk was served warm. The cheese – all the cheese, even the cheese slices placed on my burgers – had an odd smell, taste and texture. Not necessarily bad, but odd. The seafood was more adventurous than what you might see at a seafood buffet here – there was a tray of some creatures that looked like tiny octopuses, complete with heads.

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The shrimp still had legs and eyeballs (much to Fiona’s delight). Ryan ate a piece of black pudding, and described it as “taking a shot of blood”. In Cuba’s defence, it was labelled black pudding – he was warned. The ketchup tasted a bit like very mild salsa. The fruit selection was not conventional – slices of guava featured heavily, as did prunes, dates and dried apricots. The bananas were tiny, and very sweet. They looked awful on the outside, but we learned not to judge a banana by its cover. The watermelon seemed to consist mainly of seeds. No apples, no berries. A few times, Fiona and Bridget turned up their noses at the food, or said they wanted “real” insert-item-that-disappointed-them here. I had to gently remind them that we were in a different country, and we should take it like they make it – and that, even though it wasn’t what we were used to, it was still real. Once or twice, I threw in the fact that it must be annoying for the servers to see us tossing out things they could never afford (yeah, I went all Mom on them). They ate a wide variety of foods, and thought most things were just fine.

Here’s the thing: travelling is supposed to expose you to new things, broaden your mind. It’s supposed to be memorable, throw you out of your comfort zone – and make you appreciate home, too. You’re not doing that if you’re insisting that everything be just the way you like it everywhere you go. Why would you want someone else’s closest attempt at what you like, if you could have what they’ve honoured as their culture, and perfected, instead? When in Rome (or, in this case, Cuba), eat the guava and weird cheese, and wash it down with pineapple juice or (if you prefer) Cuba Libres and Cristal cerveza. No, you won’t like it all – but now you’ll know that, rather than just assuming it, and you’ll never forget how you learned it. You have the rest of your life to drink orange juice.