I wrote about the PISA results last week, and they have been subject of commentary across Canada and around the world. One of the many things I appreciate coming from these conversations is the universal value we have placed on education. Our education systems are a sense of pride and we know, regardless of where a country places on the data tables, there is a need to improve and be better.
So, how much of a value do we put on education? This past week, I spent some time talking with our newer families to the West Vancouver District. Across British Columbia and Canada — we know their stories. They have moved from around the world for new opportunities and a better life here — very often it is defined by educational opportunities for their kids. These stories will be familiar to you. The story of the family where both parents were doctors in their home country and now they are working multiple low-paying jobs in Canada, and do so without resentment; they came here for their children; for better opportunities; for the access to our top-quality education. There is another story of the family where mother resides here with the kids so they can go to school, while the father continues to work overseas and support his family thousands of miles away.
Short snippets into the lives of new Canadians remind me of our good fortune with education, and how we easily take it for granted. Yes, we have challenges. Yes, we can do more, but our system does not only offer high achievement results, it offers hope for so many families.
I have been fortunate to not have had to make the sacrifices like so many in our schools. I was further reminded of this by my uncle and author, David Waltner-Toews who published the story of his parents and my grandparents to the CBC website as part of a Canada Writes Promotion around Bloodlines. David said:
Mother lived in a Mennonite village in the Ukraine with her mother, three sisters, a brother, and three older half-siblings. They had a small mixed farm, and a barn attached to the house with a few cows and chickens in it. My mother remembers churning butter and collecting eggs for the hospital next door. Her father died in 1914, and grandma ran the farm business.
During the Revolution, men and boys were requisitioned to transport soldiers, or to go through the village and collect bodies, and then bury them in mass graves. At night, they hid in the basement; there was often shooting in the streets, and in the morning, they would find bullet holes in the windows. After the Revolution and Civil War came famine. When there wasn’t shooting, the streets were quiet at night – all the dogs and cats had been eaten. My mother’s family was lucky as their few cows were still giving milk.
In 1926, when my mother was fifteen, she and her siblings decided to leave for Canada. They auctioned the house and farmland. That night, there were about twenty people in the house, and a guard outside, as protection against bandits who would commonly watch for such auctions and break in to steal the money. When the bandits arrived and shot their way into the house, someone screamed, “Everyone is on their own!”
In the pandemonium that followed, one of the kids got away with the money. My mother and two of her sisters ran into barn, where the cattle were stampeding. From there they crawled into the machine-shed, out into a garden and over to a neighbour’s. Over the next three days, the kids scattered to the homes of different relatives, and finally, in secret, took a speeding horse carriage to the train station.
As agreed, they met in Moscow, from where they took a train to Riga, Latvia. The guards at the border took many of their belongings, but they were relieved to be free. From Riga they crossed the North Sea to England, and took a train to Southampton, from where they boarded The Empress of Scotland. In Montreal, Mom said they were “herded into immigration cubicles and sorted out”. The kids were sent to Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they worked as farm helpers and house servants.
From that childhood, Mom learned priorities: music, food, and family. She once told Dad to sell the car so we could have a piano. We kids all needed to take lessons. After Dad died, we would gather around the piano and sing old Christmas carols. From Mom, I also learned how to make the best peppermint cookies ever. We weren’t poor, she said; we just didn’t have much money. And if I ever complained about stupid politicians, she would sigh and say, “Yes, well, they come and they go. Such is life.” When I feel like complaining, I remember Mom, bake cookies, call the kids, and play piano (badly). It works wonders.
My mother, my uncle David, and their other three siblings all became teachers. Part of coming to Canada was the power of education.
We all have these kind of stories — for so many coming to Canada was about hope and about education. What an honour to be part of this system. Good people doing important work.
My thanks to all of you who continue to read and engage with the Culture of Yes. I will write one more post prior to the end of 2013 — an annual (practically traditional) “Top 3” post – but now I am sending you and your family best wishes for a safe and wonderful holiday season!