Category Archives: Multiculturalism

Developing a Personal Point of View

I stop for a latte and drink in the view. The café, six tables and a banquette against the plate glass wall, offers a window onto the Byward Market and the Gatineau hills. Wind pushes the clouds across the city in an ephemeral drama of light and shadow. A commercial crane, red and ten stories tall, anchors the scene. Continue reading Developing a Personal Point of View

Alex Janvier at the National Gallery of Canada

Alex Janvier is among the most important figures in the development of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. This retrospective presents more than 150 works created from 1950 to the present day and recounts the story of a life devoted to art and the re-empowerment of Indigenous cultures. Over a prolific sixty-five-year career Janvier has produced thousands of paintings and many public commissions, all in a unique style, recognizable for its calligraphic lines, vivid colours, Dene iconography and forms that evoke land, sky, galaxies and microscopic life. Janvier is part of a distinguished group of artists in Canada who have brought Indigenous beliefs, issues and aesthetics to the foreground and successfully combined them with Western art styles and techniques. ~ National Gallery of Canada website

Yesterday marked the opening of painter Alex Janvier’s gorgeous retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada. I slipped in for the members tour before catching the 6:00pm opening ceremony, which included traditional dancing, honour songs, prayers and a speech by Janvier in his signature white cowboy hat and black suit. Continue reading Alex Janvier at the National Gallery of Canada

Ellis Island: JR and the Art of Immigration

The United States, like Canada, is a country of immigrants. Between 1892 and 1954, twelve million citizens of other nations landed at Ellis Island seeking asylum in their new homeland. Close to 40% of Americans can trace their genealogy through these early immigrants.1

There are two kinds of Ellis Island tours available. The first is a free audio tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and is included in the general $18 ferry ticket. (Note: most of the museum’s artifacts have been removed due to water damage incurred during  Hurricane Sandy.) The ferry also makes stops at the Statue of Liberty, but does not include admission to the top of the statue.

The second, a 90-minute docent-led tour, permits access for a limited number of guests to the unrestored hospital and some of the other buildings that are not open to the general public. Within these buildings, French artist JR has installed photographs of some of the immigrants who passed through the hospital, breathing new life into the space.

I was really at Ellis Island to access the JR tour. Not only do I like exploring abandoned buildings, the subject matter is particularly relevant to my field of interest: the relationship of people to their homes and communities. And while I wholly subscribe to the idea of Ask and you shall receive, on occasion – and much to my chagrin –  I don’t always get what I want.


Me: Hi. I’m in from out of town and I really want to see the J.R. art tour of Ellis Island.

Her: Do you have a ticket?

Me: No. I called this morning but no one called me back.

Her: You must buy tickets in advance.

Me: I tried, but I thought I’d just come down and see if there’s a “no show.” There are always no-shows, especially on an awful day like today. I’m happy to pay.

Her: You can’t do that.

Me: Why not if there’s room?

Her: Those are the rules.

Me: Ummm, is it a security thing?

Her: Those are the the rules.

Me: But there’s always a way around things.

Her: (Laughs) There’s no way around this. I’m the person you have to talk to. You have to call Statue Cruises. And all the tours are sold out through next month.

Me: So I guess I have to be a local or on a foreign tour that books months in advance? So much for accessibility.

Her: (stares)

A few minutes later, Buddy In a Dark Suit is standing next to me while I photograph the Great Hall.

Over the years, millions of people have passed through the old hospital at Ellis Island on their way to freedom in America. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be one of them.


Here’s a peek at the JR tour:

And a photo tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum:

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
The more things change…
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
All immigrants climbed these stairs. Doctors, placed along their lengths, were quickly able to identify disabilities and other health problems. They would be chalked accordingly.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Great Hall which, at first, contained livestock-like pens, then later, long wooden benches. The typical immigrant spent 3 to 5 hours here prior to release.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Detainee bunks
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Graffiti-covered walls
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Window of Freedom

Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Additional Reading:

The Library of Congress: Topics in Chronicling America – Ellis Island Interactive Tour of Ellis Island

History Channel: This Day in History – Ellis Island

New York Public Library: Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed on Ellis Island


Expats: From Neither Here Nor There

Ottawa is known as a government town.  It is predominantly middle-class, not obviously flash or sexy.  I don’t say these things as a criticism.  We chose to live here for the past thirteen years and continue to make that choice for a variety of reasons.  But unlike Montreal or Vancouver, with their more obvious charms, it takes a bit of digging to reveal its treasures.

One of Ottawa’s gems is the size and variety of its expat population, people who come to Ottawa from other countries to attend school, live and work (often with the government or related enterprises), bringing a wealth of international culture to the city.  While I’ve always been curious about the expat presence, I really didn’t know how to hook into this diverse group of people.  But through the miracle that is Twitter I discovered a great expat blog from Judy Rickatson (@wifeinasuitcase), and emailed her asking that very question.  Judy kindly replied with an invitation to join a group called InterNations.

InterNations is an interactive website aimed at connecting expats around the world.  You create a profile, identify what you’re looking for (friends, information, specific activities), what you’re willing to offer (local information, contacts, friendship, business relationships) and then hook into one (or several) of the 322 international communities.

I signed up and attended my first InterNations event in Ottawa last night, in the company of ninety perfect strangers in a restaurant on Elgin Street.  In less than a minute I was deep in a fascinating conversation about aging, moving away and coming home, energy retrofits, and embracing the priceless bits of life.  People repeatedly walked straight up to me, introduced themselves, and launched into warm, interesting, personal conversations.  When it was time for dinner I did what I was told to do by our charming InterNations host, Peter.  I grabbed a chair and pulled it up to a packed table filled with more people I didn’t know.

Almost everyone I spoke with said the same thing:  they feel most comfortable hanging with others from a multi-cultural background, who come from elsewhere, or who are warm and open to new experiences and diverse people.  A few mentioned that their closest friendships have formed out of this group.  Living overseas or travelling extensively creates a Third Culture of people who are neither from here nor there, but who belong in a unique space in between.  Pragmatically, if you move frequently, being open to new people is not optional.  It is a critical mechanism for survival.

Three hours later I headed home, elated and personally satisfied, looking forward to the next group event in May and eager to organize a paddling trip out here on the Rideau.

I know that so much in life is about timing, but I can’t help asking the question: “Where have these people been for the past thirteen years of my life?” Perhaps the more relevant question is: “Where the heck have I been?”


Putting the Urban in Suburban

Okay, I admit it: I grew up in Surrey. Go ahead and take your pot shots and be done with it. Here’s an article by Frances Bula for The Globe and Mail on the work of Canada’s largest municipalities, including Surrey, to add some urban freshness to their typically strip mall-lined main streets. It’s about creating a vibrant sense of ‘place’, a reason to stop and stay awhile and maybe live, in areas that usually elicit little notice from motorists passing on their way to someplace else.

A couple of years ago we took the kids to a fantastic (free) ethnic arts and food festival held on the beautifully landscaped common areas around the Bing Thom buildings at Surrey Centre. Sure there was still a McDonalds down the street as well as sex shops and Shawarma houses, but there was a great nugget of culture, thought and possibility where there had been none. Congrats to Mayor Diane Watts, a politician (dare I say?) worth emulating.