Diary Entry: Writing to cope with immigration

I write every day to process, and I hope to learn from my past.

For instance, I recently wrote this: “By now, I’d accepted that one day I might be blown to bits by a car or truck bomb. Amazingly, I even could see the silver lining to that dark cloud: I wouldn’t know much about it. What worried me was the bomb that didn’t kill me but left me a multiple amputee, perhaps unable to see or hear.”

These words date back to the 1970s. Was I writing a novel set in Baghdad or Beirut during that time? No, I was writing about the facts of life—and death—in my native city Belfast, a United Kingdom city torn apart in the early 1970s by a religious conflict that dates back to 1690, when protestant King William of Orange defeated catholic King James at the River Boyne in Ireland. Back then, as a fresh graduate, sudden death wasn’t my only worry: there was the usual laundry list of QLC (Quarter Life Crisis) issues—relationships, careers, a serious cash shortage, the gathering storm of full-blown adulthood and so on.

I did my best to navigate this sea of troubles, but when the possibility of emigration came along I jumped at it. Unfortunately, I left hastily with no planning and landed alone, mid-winter, in a small rural Ontario town where I had no family or friends.

I was totally unprepared for my new life. I’d taken a job that most of the townspeople felt should have gone to someone local. Then there was winter. In Ireland in January the average temperature is about 5ºC, – 20ºC days are unimaginable. As one of 10 children, I’d never experienced solitude which would be a hallmark of my new life. It wasn’t easy, but I survived.

Three very isolating years later, I moved to Montreal, which was love at first sight, as it still is. Mind you, my new life was still a struggle. I had no relatives or friends, no Northern Ireland community and few possibilities of friendship in my workplace. I had to learn to work and live in French, and much more.

On top of these adaptation challenges, I lived with survivor’s guilt and worried about “that call” bringing news that mum, dad, a brother or sister had been injured or killed in a bombing. My sudden amputation from Ireland’s green rolling hills, ocean beaches, sea breezes and rainbows was a low level, but persistent sensory deprivation. I might even have had a touch of PTSD. It’s not surprising that it took me three decades of sustained effort to feel truly at home.

My friends, even after decades, even as they succeed, still say, “We love it here but it’s not home.” This between-two-worlds; at-home-in-neither, life is, I know, a default setting for most of us who arrive as adults and it’s where I’d still be without my writing.  In the end it was writing that brought me home and for that I am so very grateful.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Canada, I love you, but you can do better

Look, Canada I love you a lot, but we need to talk. I’m worried about our future.

You act like you’re number one but the facts say otherwise. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) says you’re very middling: your Gross Domestic Product per person is sixteenth in the OECD family of 36 members. Worse, your social spending lags – public pension spending, family benefits, and spending on incapacity are 7th, 6th and 5th – from last. Gender earnings equity is 4th worst, household debt 9th highest, tax on personal income 7th highest and savings 8th from last. The September 2019 unemployment rate at 5.6 per cent was more than double the rates of the Czech Republic and Japan and trailed Mexico and the USA, tied at 3.5 per cent. What can I say? You’re just not number one.

And even your middling performance is precarious. Most of your trade goes to a single market – the increasingly volatile USA. You were doing well, by diversifying trade with China until you arrested Meng Wanzhou at Washington’s request, and that was that, wasn’t it? Then there are your “cash crop” industries: oil, mining and forestry that in a greener, cleaner world could disappear just as quickly as the baby seal hunt, asbestos and fur coats. Let’s face it, much of your service sector is a house of cards: real estate, financial services driven by mortgage and other consumer debt, and three levels of government.

You should be innovating like crazy to create new, green, industries but you aren’t. R&D spending lags the OECD average of 2.4 per cent and the 2019 Global Innovation Index ranked you 17th in 2019, down from 15th in 2016 (you once were in the Top 10). Although the Global Affairs website states that: “The Arctic is fundamental to Canada’s national identity,” you aren’t the world’s leading builder of icebreakers… Finland is. Agriculture? The Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products. You’re number eight. According to Environment Canada, you’re the world’s third largest producer of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). You’re also the first in the world with a GMO animal product – salmon. But with much of the world GMO-averse, what on earth were you thinking?

I know, Canada, you say I worry too much and I might agree with you if you weren’t warning newcomers of the employment risks they face “…being accepted to come to Canada does not guarantee you employment in Canada in your preferred job or any other job.”

So you see Canada, it’s time for an adult conversation about our future. Trouble is, there’s little sign of that happening.

The last general election wasn’t much of an adult conversation, was it? Will the next one be any better? I wonder. For the moment I’ll have to rely on the OECD data — they’re my best bet for getting to the truth about our future.

Graphic by @sundaeghost


What about the amputees?

On the east end of my not-so-prosperous neighbourhood, and, on occasion the green line, I notice an increasing number of amputees — usually with one or both legs removed at or below the knee.

Curious as to why they all were wheelchair-bound, I did some research and discovered that they probably can’t afford anything better.

In some Canadian provinces, Ontario being one of them, about 70 per cent of healthcare funding comes from our taxes and the remaining 30 percent is paid for by you and I directly — or through private medical insurance. If there’s no free lunch there’s no free healthcare, either. The 30 per cent that we passy for ourselves includes most dental, hearing and vision care, prescription medication, certain vaccinations, or a ride in an ambulance. While these holes in the system are known to most Canadians, they’d probably assume that a prosthetic limb required after an amputation would be covered. Sadly, they’d assume wrongly. Fact is, the Canada Health Act doesn’t cover prosthetic limbs.

Provincial programs to fund prosthetic limbs are complex to navigate and may even be deceptive. According to CBC, Ontario’s Assistive Devices Program (ADP) claims to cover 75 per cent of the cost of artificial limbs but the coverage is capped. ADP’s approved prices were last reviewed in 2012; advocacy groups claim that even back then, prices were severely out of date.

Nineteen-year-old Emilio Dutra-Lidington lost his right leg to the propeller of a boat on Lac Pemichangan two hours north of Ottawa. Following multiple surgeries, the time came for a prosthetic leg – the quoted price was $91,577. Emilio’s family learned that the leg had to be replaced every three to five years for common technology and every six to seven for higher technology. The life-time cost of the prosthetic leg might run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. How much would Ontario contribute? A sum of $6,792. Help for Emilio came from a crowd-funding campaign launched by his parents in June 2019; within four months it amassed $130,000.

Ontarian Patty De Guia lost her leg to cancer a few years ago. Global News reported that while in hospital, her chemotherapy meds were covered; but once home, her lower-dose chemo pens ($4,000 each) were only partially covered by her private insurance. With her finances already depleted by out of pocket expenses for at home chemo, she couldn’t afford the $50,000 prosthetic leg her doctor recommended. She opted for a $10,000 “loaner,” $2,500 up front and a promise to return the leg once she got something better. After nine years, De Guia’s neighbours set up a GoFundMe page to help her buy a suitable prosthetic which cost almost $90,000.

In Quebec, the Régime d’Assurance Maladie du Québec (RAMQ) decided that Hugues Leblanc’s two hand prostheses, a complete bio-mechanical hand valued at about $35,000 and a forceps worth about $25,000, would be 100 per cent covered – a  wonderful outcome that might not have happened if the Journal de Montreal hadn’t covered Leblanc’s tragic story and if his deputy, Pascal Berubé, and heavy hitter Danielle McCann, Minister of Health, hadn’t intervened.

A study published in 2017, based on 2012-16 data shows that 6,000 Canadians underwent lower limb amputations each year. In addition, there were perhaps 1,500 upper limb amputations in the same period. Unfortunately, some of these amputees might stumble into a Kafkaesque perfect storm that begins with an illness or accident followed by amputation, then expensive prescription meds – not covered – and a hugely expensive prosthetic limb – not covered – loss of earnings, perhaps even loss of one’s employment during months of rehabilitation. The amputee may end up bankrupt or deeply in debt and perhaps severely depressed with limited access and horrendous wait times to psychological services.

Surely in Canada we can do better? I mean, how can Canada make amputee Terry Fox a national hero while nickel-and-diming its everyday amputees? It just seems so un-Canadian, hypocritical even. What to do? Canada could revise its Health Care Act to include prosthetic limbs and other assistive devices, and provinces could cap costs rather than coverage. The provinces could get together to create a national purchasing agency for prosthetics, or prescription meds like the one in the UK, to bulk buy and drive down costs. A “Canadians with Disabilities Act” similar to the United States’ “Americans with Disabilities Act” (ADA) might help.

Learning more about this risk that might come knocking at your door is important. We all need to know and make some noise about it, which is what I’m trying to do. 

Graphic by @sundaeghost


Trick or treat, deal or no deal

It may not be a coincidence that Brexit, the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union, is scheduled for Oct. 31, which, as you know, is also Halloween. 

In fact, Brexit is a pretty scary prospect for my family and friends back in my native Northern Ireland (NI). Their fears are not unfounded: a Sept 04 report by the Canadian credit ratings agency DBRS suggests that if the UK crashes out of the EU on Oct 31 it could “inadvertently lead to the breakup of the Union” – (namely the UK) by increasing support for Scottish independence and the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

The prospect of a breakup of the UK is a serious matter: even casual students of history know that the birth or death of a nation is usually a very messy business.

A potential flashpoint would be the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (ROI). Since 1973, when the UK and the ROI joined the EU, people and goods moved freely across the border. However, if a no deal Brexit leads to a NI-ROI border with infrastructure – fences, passport and customs posts. This so called “hard border”, in confirming the 1921 partition of Ireland would become a target for the catholic paramilitary IRA (Irish Republican Army). IRA attacks on border infrastructure would mean reprisals on the catholic community by the protestant paramilitary UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). British military  intervention to separate the two sides could revive the shooting war that lasted from 1969-1998, reports the BBC.

Bertie Ahern, former PM of the ROI, in an article for Irish Examiner expressed how the Irish feel about a hard border: “They fear that any infrastructure at the border equals trouble, disagreement, Army, soldiers, police. Some of it might be exaggerated but there is that fear of the slippery slope. It is something that really worries people.”

Irish people are angry and frustrated by what they see as the UK’s cavalier attitude towards Ireland as Irish Journalist Una Mullally writes in The Guardian, “With every bungled stage of Brexit, there is a dismayed head-shake about the fact that this is the first century where all of Ireland isn’t under British rule, yet still Britain finds a way to screw us. When Britain sneezes, we catch the cold.” Of course it’s not just about the Irish and the NI-ROI border. About 3 million EU citizens established in the UK may have to rethink their futures after Brexit.  Polish citizen Niko Cichowlas who runs a London based construction company explains: “When I hear the guys talking, they feel that the British are turning against them, they feel this rightwing antagonism, and some of them end up becoming quite anti-British themselves – the process works both ways. They feel under attack, it is very sad.”

The crazy thing is, Brexit didn’t have to happen. It only came about because of a throw away promise made during the 2015 UK election campaign by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. He said he would hold a referendum on EU membership if his party was re-elected. Probably, when he made the promise he just couldn’t imagine that on June 23 2016, 17.4 million UK citizens (52 pc of eligible voters) would vote to leave. In this way, a casual election promise led to the UK’s biggest political and constitutional crisis in half a century.

There may be some hope of a last minute deal to take the UK out of the EU in an orderly manner. Following their October 10 meeting in Liverpool, the Irish PM Leo Varadkar and the UK’s Boris Johnson stated they could see “a pathway towards a possible deal.” I hope so — Halloween isn’t far away and there’s already too much scary stuff happening in the world without tacking on a disorderly Brexit.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


My name is Patrick and I am not a leprechaun!

Exploring the two Irelands of “Emerald Isle” and the different hues of identities

After many years in Montreal, I have little sentimental connection to my native Northern Ireland, but as Saint Patrick’s Day approaches, when friends and neighbours inevitably ask me about Ireland, I feel obliged to explain there’s more to it than leprechauns, floppy green hats and ginger wigs. “First of all,” I say, “you should know there isn’t just one Ireland, there’s two. There isn’t just one sort of Irishness, there’s many. And Ireland’s national language isn’t English, but Irish, even though it’s not really spoken in everyday life.”

The two Irelands came into being in 1921 when the “Emerald Isle” was divided into Northern Ireland (NI)—part of the United Kingdom (UK)—and the independent Republic of Ireland (ROI). Once the NI-ROI border was in place, various hues of Irishness bloomed on either side of it. By the turn of the 21st century, ROI citizens saw themselves as “real” Irish, with NI citizens relegated more or less, to the status of foreigners, according to popular weblog Slugger O’ Toole. Evidence of this mindset popped up during the ROI’s 2011 presidential televised debate, when a young female in the studio audience told NI candidate, the late Mr. Martin McGuinness, that he was from another country.

How Mr. McGuinness, the then NI Assembly’s deputy first minister, devout Catholic, and ex Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander felt about this I cannot say. Did he wonder, for instance, why on earth the IRA had tried, from 1969 to 1998, to bomb NI into the ROI? However, despite grassroots ROI sentiments about NI Catholic citizens being foreigners, most of them, like Mr. McGuinness, feel strongly Irish. Now, with Brexit on the horizon, some NI Protestant citizens, who usually identify as British, are applying for an Irish passport. In fact, an increasing number might even support unification with the ROI so as to remain in the EU after Brexit.

Finally, after the ROI joined the European Communities in 1973, now the European Union, its prosperity took off and it became an immigration nation. According to Central Statistics Office (CSO), the ROI was home to 535,475 non-Irish nationals and 104,784 persons with dual-Irish nationality. “So you see,” I tell my friends and neighbours, “there are many different hues of Irishness on the Emerald Isle.”

You might think that, in Ireland, national identity would include the official language, which is Irish, but you’d be wrong. According to the 2016 ROI Census, Irish is spoken daily by only 73,803 citizens—of whom a goodly number live in a Gaeltacht, a rural area that functions in Irish only. Outside of the Gaeltacht areas, in urban settings such as Dublin, an Irish speaker would struggle to order a drink or a burger, call a cab or chat with the driver in the national language. In fact, in Dublin, a Polish speaker would have more chances of doing so in Polish, which is now Ireland’s second-most spoken language after English.

Mind you, Irish isn’t dead; it’s one of the EU’s official languages. You can find it on Google Translate, and Irish language classes are even offered here in Montreal. Comhrá, a non-profit group that delivers Irish language classes exists in Montreal—as does Concordia’s School of Canadian Irish Studies. Meanwhile in my native NI, Irish is gaining ground, according to CBC News. Some NI Protestant citizens are studying Irish which they pragmatically consider to be part of a rainbow of Celtic languages, namely Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Max and Cornish. All of these are woven into the tapestry of Britishness, according to the same source.

“So, there you are,” I tell my friends and neighbours. “There’s very little that’s simple about Ireland and the Irish, but even so, with the Saints Pat’s parade around the corner, I’d like to wish you, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona! Happy Saint Pats! Joyeuse Saint Patrick!”

Graphic by Ana Bilokin


How Brexit in the UK affects Northern Ireland

A Northern Ireland student’s take on Brexit and how it will affect his home

Within “Brexit”––the United Kingdom’s pending withdrawal from the European Union (EU)––is a lesson on how an international border can return to haunt the foreign power that imposed it, long before for reasons of political expediency.

The border that separates my native Northern Ireland (NI) from its southern neighbor, the Republic of Ireland (ROI), also separates Britain from an orderly Brexit which is ironic, since it was Britain that created the border when it partitioned Ireland in 1921. It would even be amusing if a disorderly Brexit wasn’t such a threat for Ireland, north and south.

In 2016, Brexit came about, largely, from British immigration angst. Since the NI-ROI border will be the UK’s only land border with the EU, you’d expect it to have customs posts, passport control, and barriers of some sort. However, this “hard border” scenario is problematic because of Ireland’s history and the tangled web of national identities that didn’t disappear with partition.

In NI, those citizens––usually Catholic––who identify as Irish see the border as an emotional reminder of partition that deprived them of basic civil liberties for 50 years. For instance, there were cases where access to social housing and to employment in private and public employment was denied to members of the Catholic community. However, some NI catholics pragmatically cherish the border for locking the UK into injecting roughly (CAN)$16 billion annually into the NI economy.

NI citizens––usually Protestant––who identify as British see the border as confirming the union with the UK and their own distinct society. Others, seeing their future in the EU, have obtained ROI (EU) passports and some might even buy into a united Ireland as to remain in the EU, according to The Irish Times.

Hardcore NI nationalists are fundamentally opposed to the border. In fact, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) would consider border infrastructures as “legitimate military targets.” But any border attacks by the IRA would provoke reprisals by the––mostly Protestant––Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In this way, a “hard” (visible) border might reignite the violence that ended with the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement, according to The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, south of the border, ROI citizens see it as a firewall against the craziness of NI sectarian politics, which is why, in a 1999 referendum, they massively voted to relinquish the ROI’s constitutional claim of sovereignty over all of Ireland. However, the border question is not exclusively in their hands because the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement allows NI’s Secretary of State to call a referendum on the status of the border. A similar referendum would have to be held in the ROI. How those referenda would play out is anyone’s guess.

To avoid a hard NI-ROI border, the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement includes a so called “backstop,” a post-Brexit temporary customs union between the UK and NI with the EU. However, after the UK’s attorney general judged that the backstop could tie the UK to the EU perhaps indefinitely, according to The Irish Times, the Withdrawal Agreement was struck down by more than 200 votes in the UK Parliament on Jan. 15, 2019.

At the end of January, Prime Minister Theresa May was considering an alternate backstop with technology replacing visible border infrastructures. If this option is rejected, the UK may crash out of the EU on March 29, creating a hard NI-ROI border and a possible return to armed conflict in NI, according to The Guardian.

Last year, I had a chilling reminder of the violence I knew growing up in Belfast. On DW’s “Belfast facing Brexit”, ex-IRA member Bob talks of bombers and ex-UVF member Noel, although referring to his past, speaks in the present tense: “I’ll shoot a Catholic nationalist … that way the message is sent to that community…” This is just one example of the consequences for NI, of Brexit, and the border.

Graphic by @spooky_soda

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