Student Life

What is the real key to happiness?

A University of the Streets Café discussion reflects on the “pursuit of happiness”

University of the Streets Café hosted yet another edition of its public discussions at Café Aux Deux Marie on St-Denis Street last Wednesday to discuss a hefty topic—the illusive pursuit of happiness.

The talk was moderated by Anurag Dhir, a community engagement coordinator for McGill University’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office. The event featured speakers who explored the idea of purposefulness and happiness in their line of work: Peter Hartman and Juniper Belshaw. Hartman is a motivational speaker and founder of Happy For A Change, an organization that looks to spread the word about positive global initiative. Belshaw currently works for the Cirque du Soleil as a senior advisor for talent management, but she used to work and volunteer a lot in the  non-profit sector.

The atmosphere of the talk was quite relaxed. Once the speakers made their preliminary addresses, participants were encouraged to join in on the discussion.

While the intention of the talk was to discuss how to lead a life of impact within a community, the natural course of discussion led to the attendees sharing their views on what happiness means to them, and how to achieve a life of happiness. Most of the audience members agreed that living a life of happiness begins with the acceptance that things happen, and one can’t control everything.

There was a general consensus that, to live a life of positive impact, one must first find positivity in their own life. This echoed the sentiments of Belshaw, who at the end of her introduction said “maybe tonight I’m hoping to talk about how we build sustainable social change where we’re creating the world we want, but also living it as we do it.”

Peter Hartman, who also organizes discussions about finding a purpose in life through his organization Happy For A Change, said he’s used to hearing a lot of discussions turn into talks about the pursuit of happiness.

“There is overwhelmingly this focus on happiness,” he said. “I was hoping we would get beyond that… but I find it so useful, because every time we have that conversation we get a little bit further,” into what it means to lead a life of purpose.

Photo by Ana Hernandez

Hartman explained that, for him, living a life of purpose means living a life of meaningful action. “It’s when there is intention behind the actions that you do,” he said. “It’s not just that you have relationships—it’s the manner in which you have relationships that contribute to your overall purpose.”

Relationships, Hartman added, can be as basic as the contact a person has with a store clerk.

This and other guiding principles are the basis of Happy for A Change—what he calls a philosophy and a movement—with the goal of using people’s own search for happiness to make a positive change in the world.

“We understand that everybody is different and people want to work on different things, so we’re trying to find the lowest common denominator, what is the smallest action possible that we can convince people to do that would create change?” said Hartman. For the speaker, that action is going on social media. Hartman believes that going on social media is something that practically everyone does every day and he tries to harness its power by convincing people in the self-help industry to use their financial means to promote and market ideas that create a better society on social media.

Attendees discussed their thoughts on finding happiness through community engagement. Photo by Ana Hernandez

University of the Streets Café is a program part of Concordia’s Office of Community Engagement, which has existed for 15 years. According to Alex Megelas, the organizer of University of the Street Café programming, their mandate is to “promote a culture of community engagement at Concordia.” They do so by creating links between staff, students and different community based groups and organizations. University of the Streets Café is one of their initiatives.

Megelas said his principle role is to create discussions that reflect the goal of the program. This year, their goal is to look at city engagement and, more specifically, “how we live in cities as, individuals and together, [and] create shared experiences.”

The next University of the Streets Café discussion called “Representative Democracy: How do we foster citizenship literacy”, and will be held on March 9 at 7 p.m. at Temps Libre at 5606 De Gaspé St.

Student Life

Over one hundred days as an Al Qaeda prisoner

Former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Robert Fowler discusses his “season in hell”

Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Robert Fowler, spoke about his experience as a prisoner of the Al Qaeda terrorist group at Concordia’s DB Clarke theatre on Sept. 25.

In his presentation, “Sleeping with Al Qaeda,” Fowler discussed his 130-day experience of horror, as well as his thoughts on curbing radicalism, terrorism and violence in the regions of Africa where he was captured.

It was December 2008. Fowler, along with his colleague Louis Guay, were chosen by the United Nations’ secretary general to help defuse the tense political situation in Niger during a citizen-led rebellion against the government. Following a meeting with Niger’s president, Fowler and Guay were ambushed and captured by a group of radical terrorists, and smuggled into Mali. It was the start of what Fowler called “a season in hell.”  Fowler would later go on to publish a book about this experience in 2011, which he titled Season In Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda.

Fowler explained that he and Guay were considered prisoners of war, and were treated as such. They were hated.  “Every moment was filled with fear,” said Fowler.

The men who captured Fowler and Guay were militant Salafist terrorists—conservative extreme radicalists who believe in violent jihadism. “[They] hated everything we stand for… our most cherished concepts of liberty, democracy, equality and free will,” said Fowler. “They were the most focused, most selfless, most single-minded and least horny group of young men I have ever encountered.”

In the depths of the Sahara Desert, Fowler experienced first-hand the mentality of these violent, extreme radicals. “The whole issue of free will is wrought with horror for them … In their view, nothing is man’s choice—it’s God’s choice … They wanted paradise. It didn’t matter when. If they died in jihad, it would be theirs.”

Fowler described a time during his imprisonment when he was assigned to a small area—the foot of a tree in the middle of a field, with a single guard keeping watch. The man was clearly upset—he was gnashing his teeth, pacing and mumbling angrily to himself. Eventually, the man thrust his gun in Fowler’s face and told him: “Just kill me, I want to go to paradise!”

Photo by Ana Hernandez

After 130 days, the Malian and Canadian governments finally negotiated Fowler and Guay’s release. The “season in hell” came to an end, and Fowler said the experience convinced him these jihadists could not be reasoned with.

Despite this, Fowler doesn’t think all-out military action is the solution. “It is about diminishing the jihadi threat to the point the Africans can handle it. It is not about turning Niger into Alberta,” said Fowler. He cited the violence and poverty that continues to this day in areas like Mali and Niger as an example of how little Canada and the rest of the western world have done to help. “The Canadian senate published a paper called ‘Forty Years of Failure’ because we haven’t fixed Africa,” he said.

Press photo.

Fowler said he believes that the solution to the problems in Africa is to keep funding and supporting UN peacekeeping missions in areas where jihadism continues to cause problems. Fowler gave the example of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The mission consists of about 15,000 military personnel with a current budget of just under $1 billion. Rather than attacking with all-out force, MINUSMA carries out security-related tasks and helps defuse violent situations, while protecting and promoting human rights in Mali.

While Fowler has high hopes for programs like MINUSMA, he said he realizes that the conditions in places like Mali and Niger have not improved significantly since the time of his imprisonment.  He recalled a time in the 60s, after he finished college, when nearly every one of his friends had traveled to culturally diverse countries like Niger. Nowadays, Fowler said, “it’s just too damn dangerous” for people to explore many parts of Africa.

Fowler’s discussion was the first in a series of speeches and panels organized by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, titled “Assaulting Cultural Heritage: ISIS’s Fight to Destroy Diversity in Iraq and Syria.”  The series was held at Concordia on Sunday, Sept. 25 and Monday, Sept. 26.

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