O Canada

I have been volunteering at the New Literacy Initiative at IRCOM since October 2007. The following, is something I wrote early in my volunteering, but continues to be true  today.

Monday mornings has brought me a new appreciation for our national anthem O Canada. I used to spend it drinking tea with friends or efficiently ticking off my list of errands, but three months ago I shook up my Mondays and unknowingly shook up my world. I am volunteering as a helper in an English Adult Learning class (formerly called ESL). Students trudge through the Winnipeg snow, often with babies tied to their backs to sit in a bright basement classroom at the local elementary school. Many of these women never had the chance to learn to read or write in their birth language. They learn English while their young children are happily cared for. This is the only program in Winnipeg that lets toddlers and babies stay close by their parents while English is taught. This allows the women the opportunity to be freed from the responsibilities of home and children, to learn the language that will offer them even further freedom in their new country. The women are from a number of African countries, as well as Burma and Thailand. A community has formed and I am delighted and surprised to find myself in the middle of it.

There is Haweya; a Somali widow raising 4 teenagers alone. She works nights cleaning offices but comes in each morning, eyes bright and alive regardless of how tired she is. Her reading is progressing, but she is frustrated with her spoken word, which needs time to develop. I am sure she has so much to say; judging by her spirit, but it is currently confined to the borders of her limited vocabulary. At the Christmas party she led a boisterous game of musical chairs, ululating as is her Somali celebration custom. Laughter has no language barrier.

I don’t really know Yenee. Her English is limited to hello, and simple one word answers. I do know she is a grandmother, and Ethiopian. Her forehead is high and her cheekbones still prominent on an aging face. She has a scar that runs from her right ear down her neck. I find her dignified and peaceful. One morning we played a game introducing ourselves with the traditional greetings of our birth countries. We laughed at the repetition of saying hello over and over. Her introduction was the memorable one. Slowly and purposefully she gave me a half hug while shaking my hand, and simultaneously placing her head first by the left side of my head, then by the right side, and finally by the left again. Three she said with raised fingers. I felt I had been truly welcomed.  

Each person, each face has a story. I wish I knew more. Things slip out here and there; someone has 6 sisters spread over three continents but none in Winnipeg, another was a hairdresser in her home country and cannot find the right hair creams here, or the money to pay for her beauty technician training. I marvel at how they accept me and each other; Somali and Ethiopian, Muslim and Catholic. We laugh a lot. If only the world mirrored our classroom.

These students, their journeys, triumphs and heartbreaks, are all stored away in their birth languages. I am privileged to help them slowly and painstakingly learn the language that can unlock these stories, lead them to training or employment and belonging in this new place. May their Winnipeg transform from a foreign prairie city to an unexpected home. For me, I have found an unexpected home too. They greet me waving and smiling, encourage me to come more mornings and help them. I feel accepted and valued despite having no training for this, aside from having once helped my own children learn to read and write. What a curiosity this is to me, a wonder really.

Every Monday morning I climb the steps of an inner city school where 60 % of the children are newcomers. Inevitably it is 9:00 a.m. as I open the doors to the familiar sound of O Canada playing through the loudspeakers in the hallway. The first time, I stood next to a spirited looking black Muslim girl of about 6. Her hijabed face was a movement of mouth and mischievous eyes as she confidently sang along. I stood silently, the awkward adult waiting for the final line so I could get where I needed to go. But now, all that has changed. I stop, happy to honour this anthem with a renewed appreciation of what it means to live in a land that is strong and free. Now I sing along too.