Preserving Dignity in Uncertain Times

We’re all living with uncertainty – in politics, our economy, the climate, socially and culturally. The last time I recall feeling this much uncertainty was after September 11th.  On that unforgettable day, I was at  home tweaking my speech on “Managing Energy Operations in Emerging Democracies” to be delivered to a 350-person audience, members of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators, many of them from Muslim-majority countries,  gathered in Calgary for an annual conference. Driving downtown with the radio turned up, listening to reporters describe the fall of the twin towers, again and again, I couldn’t stop crying. Whatever the facts, the lives of many people I knew as friends and colleagues would be irreversibly changed. There was no precedent, no grounding, for this event. It was agony; all I could think of was, “what now?”

Understandably, one of the reactions to times of great uncertainty and to any attack – whether real or perceived- is an increased receptivity to top-down direction and powerful leadership, for example, forceful security measures to counter terrorists or even aggressive tweets in the attempt to deter rogue states threatening nuclear war. We want someone to fix the problem! And, yet, in addition to the minor indignities, the hassle of security checks at airports, there are serious implications for personal dignity that we are wise to consider before being seduced into avoiding or succumbing to the turbulent emotions that accompany uncertainty.

Although it’s tempting to tag Donald Trump, The Disruptor, as the source of all uncertainty, some argue that our present state is actually rooted in the forceful response to security threats in the wake of 9/11.  That attack on America unleashed a drama whose ripples continue to rock our boats. Government leaders had to step up, then, to be seen to be keeping citizens safe, and despite the fact that it’s more likely you will be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist, people still feel uncertainty and fear.  As our freedoms erode, there is frustration, anger and a loss of dignity too. In her latest book, No is Not Enough, Naomi Klein argues that Trump isn’t an aberration but an inevitable culmination of what she calls “destructive trends” including the rise of a super-powered brand of top-down decision-maker, the “CEO saviour”. I don’t often agree with Naomi Klein on political ends, but on this, we agree.

PeatWith David Peat, in Pari, Italy

During the early heave of September 11th, I met David Peat, a British-educated quantum physicist who was associated with scientist and philosopher David Bohm (the two wrote the book Science, Order, and Creativity together); worked in Canada as a researcher with the National Research Council and ultimately founded the Pari Centre in Pari, Italy. David was in Alberta introducing ideas for leading change in turbulent times, built on Bohm’s scientific principles.

In that first meeting, I was struck by David’s emphasis on the need for creative and “gentle action”. While others were focused on top-down “fixes” and massive interventions in complex systems, David was offering up a different response, one that seemed to honour the dignity of affected individuals. Top-down decision-making is occasionally necessary, but  when it’s tone deaf to the experiences of citizens and communities, these interventions make things worse, intensify the drama,  disrupt ecosystems and damage economies.

6093614Gentle Action became a primer we used with Canada Bridges for guiding local and youth leaders who wanted to change the status quo in their own communities.

Very sadly, David passed away this spring, at home in his beloved Pari.

Of course, there are times when top-down directing is an imperative. In the operating room, I prefer that one person, the surgeon, direct the operation and in the heat of battle, soldiers need crystal-clear orders. More often though, a mix of top-down and bottom-up decision-making is most effective. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with my leadership styles, and recognize my sweet spots and weaknesses.

Beyond top-down and bottom-up, it’s advantageous to think about how to approach change. Based on my research we can look at this from a few different places–as an insider, as an outsider, or as someone in between. Working in large energy companies, in the role of employee or advisor, I was always outward focused. When elected to government, I understood the importance of allegiance to a political party yet equally prioritized my allegiance to constituents. There are times that this way of thinking, of taking both my party and my constituents into consideration, has been misinterpreted as disloyalty.   I’ve never been the consummate insider, one of those people who serves at the core where decisions are made. And, I’m rarely the outsider – the person who throws missiles from beyond the walls. Where I’m most often found is at the edge of the inside.  It’s the place that seems to nurture my sense of who I am, my true self. My sense of dignity.

Fr-Richard-FH-porch-300x205Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest living in Albuquerque coined the term, edge of the inside, and suggests in his pamphlet “The Eight Core Principles,” that when you live on the edge of any group, “you are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.”

Last June, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times exploring this edge of the inside concept, with a focus on American politics. Here’s an overview:

  • It’s bridge-building work. The person at the edge of the inside of an organization can see what’s good about their own group, and as well, what’s good about rival groups. “A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.” Insiders and outsiders are threatened by those on the other side of the barrier. But a person on the edge of inside neither idolizes the Us nor demonizes the Them.
  • A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer. This person has the loyalty of a faithful insider, but the judgment of the critical outsider. A person on the edge of the inside knows how to take advantage of the standards and practices of an organization but not be imprisoned by them. Rohr writes, “You have learned the rules well enough to know how to ‘break the rules properly,’ which is not really to break them at all, but to find their true purpose: ‘not to abolish the law but to complete it.’”
  • The person on the edge of inside is involved in constant change. The true insiders are so deep inside they often get confused by trivia and locked into the status quo. The outsider is throwing bombs and dreaming of far-off transformational revolution. But the person at the doorway is seeing constant comings and goings. As Rohr says, he is involved in a process of perpetual transformation, not a belonging system, more interested in being a searcher than a settler.

This edge of the inside is definitely ‘beyond polarity’ non-dualistic thinking and acting! At this threshold between insiders and outsiders, you are perfectly positioned to see how seeming opponents aren’t really opposed in all things. This perspective can help you to see complementary relationships on bigger issues. Thinking really big, recall Lincoln’s ability to see beyond the divisions between North and South.


But, as Brooks points out in his op-ed, and as I know from personal raw experience, this is rarely a comfortable place.  At the edge of the inside, you are often seen as lacking the “purity” of the outsider and you aren’t the “true believer” on the inside. When people are uncertain, or afraid, they want purity and unwavering loyalty. And lock step unity.

We’re living in uncertain times. It’s natural to look for people who can shine a clear light through the fog. Sometimes that clarity comes from a sense of certainty or conviction about a position or values or priorities—which can feel strong at the core of an organization, or in rebellion against someone or some thing or some idea. There is a critical role for insiders and outsiders, and I admire people with the courage, commitment and loyalty to do what it takes to offer up certainty in uncertain times.

But there are people, including myself, whose truest selves are realized by acting at the edge of the inside. For those of you seeking creative, constructive and energizing space, and who can live with a little uncertainty, I invite you to join me at the edge of the inside, this space along the continuum of change where opposites can engage.  Yes, you will be criticized as not caring enough—but I can assure you that caring is one of the prime drivers in this threshold space. If I didn’t care about the organizations and communities and political parties to which I belonged, it would be easy to disengage. Not only do I care about my own dignity, I insist that the organizations and communities I care about live up to their truest selves, too.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest behind this “edge of the inside” idea, has a Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. As I was fine-tuning this blog, Rohr’s Center emailed out a short message on change that seems timely to share:

A sense of order is the easiest and most natural way to begin; it is a needed first “container.” But this structure is dangerous if we stay in its safe confines too long. It is small and self-serving. It doesn’t know the full picture, but it thinks it does. “Order” must be deconstructed by the trials and vagaries of life. We must go through a period of “disorder” to grow up….Only in the final “reorder” stage can darkness and light coexist, can paradox be okay…Opposites collide and unite; everything belongs.”

In times of uncertainty, we crave order and the instant fix. And, moving from order to disorder, to ultimately arrive at reorder, is messy and uncomfortable business, it doesn’t matter whether we are  talking about recalibrating security measures to respond to terrorism and nuclear threats, the redesign of corporate operations to reflect consumers’ changing values on climate change, or the refreshing of a political party to respect the priorities of younger voters. So, yes, I’m inviting you to move from uncertain to uncomfortable! You may not always be the hero of the story, but you may have a little fun easing the rules; crossing rigid boundaries and optimally you could be a midwife to the birth of transformative and sustained change.

bridgeRarely is there a direct flight from order to reorder. We need bridges to cross through the disorder; uncertainty calls for them, dignity deserves them.

Donna Kennedy-Glans



Sleeping with an Elephant

March 2017 3 057This is a photo of Abdullah Saleh, then President of Yemen, in Ottawa on the occasion of his Presidential visit to Canada. Sitting ramrod straight behind Saleh are female and male Royal Canadian Mounted Police, familiar icons of Canada’s peace, order and government values. In 1999, this moustached and stern man was supreme tribal leader of an authoritarian regime cum democracy. Now, Saleh is an outlaw and rebel in his own country.

As a vice-president with the energy company, Nexen Inc. (then CanadianOxy), I was responsible for working with the Canadian Government to organize Saleh’s State Visit to Canada.  At the time, CanadianOxy was one of Yemen’s most successful foreign investors, discovering and marketing a brand new crude called Masila Blend. Organizing the State visit was a complex task, requiring good will on all sides and a decent modicum of hope that this dictator would actually allow democratic elections in his country. In 1999, CanadianOxy was also operating in other emerging democracies—including Indonesia and Nigeria. It was an optimistic time – ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and pre-September 11th, 2001. It was a window of time when Canadians had an appetite to play the role of midwife to these political transformations, to the delivery of dignity to every human being wherever they lived in the world, including the right to elect their politicians.

March 2017 3 059Saleh and his 200-plus entourage landed their Yemenia plane in Ottawa and made their way, with much pomp and circumstance, to be officially received by Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and her partner John Ralston Saul.  A State Dinner with Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife Aline would take place the next day. I’ll never forget the horror of seeing a six-foot high pile of guns shed by Saleh’s retinue at the doorway to Rideau Hall—AK47s, Kalashnikovs, handguns—stacked up in the halls of diplomacy of Canada, a peace-loving country more provoked by gun registries than the right to bear arms.

The visit included formalities in Ottawa, Montreal, and of course, Calgary, the home of Canadian energy companies. After a whirlwind tour, four days in duration, we waved goodbye to the Yemenia plane…on its way to Washington, D.C. We all knew, all along, that this was the real destination. The Yemeni President wanted to meet with the U.S. President, or at least Presidential decision-makers. The best path to Washington passed through Ottawa. We were the bridge.

Canada is a sovereign State. Yet, living next door to the United States, and integrated so closely into a North American economy, has impacted our sense of sovereignty…and I would argue, sometimes even our sense of dignity as a country. President Saleh wasn’t the first leader to like Canada because we could possibly provide access to the United States.

Just like a person, a sovereign state needs a distinct sense of status, intrinsic value, bearing and respect.  Don’t get me wrong: Canadians certainly hold our values dear, and they shape our constitution and our attitudes. At times, though, I find we are prone to viewing our political and economic decisions with a degree of interdependence, even dependency on America, that risks impinging on our own identity. For example, U.S. consumers are a massive and convenient market for Canadian manufacturers and farmers and energy producers, and quite understandably, we worry a lot about sustaining that access. Canadians recognize America’s military clout, and readily admit to dependence on our neighbour for security. Given our close proximity and interconnectedness, we often define ourselves in contrast to Americans: “Unlike Americans, we believe in universal access to healthcare and single tier medicine rather than a multi-tier system, don’t need to carry around handguns to feel safe, and have a different, although not perfect, relationship with our First Nations.”

Harold Innis Harold Innis, one of our country’s early and leading economists, grew up a farm east of Otterville Ontario, coincidentally, a contemporary and neighbour of my Grandfather Kennedy. Using the metrics of geography and economics, Innis helped shape Canadians’ understanding of our identity as citizens of a newly independent country. In The Fur Trade in Canada, published in 1930, Innis asserted Canada’s boundaries were determined by the fur trade, by our zealous pursuit of beavers to support an export economy. Canada’s economic reliance on exports of natural resources continues to this day.

NP238lazyboy-angle2Beaver called Lazy Boy by sculptor Nicola Prinsen, at Canada House Gallery, Banff

Innis also believed that the coast-to-coast structure of the fur trade led to a centralized model for Canada’s transportation, financial and other infrastructure. The United States had regional railways and local banks; Canada had national railways and banks. My father recalls his father and uncle travelling in 1922 to Wainwright, Alberta on the Canadian Pacific railway as part of the “harvest expedition”.  Fares were funded by the Canadian government.  A national railway, taking farmers from east to west, serving national interests by giving people work and getting grain crops harvested – it’s easy to find dignity in that.

Kennedy familyGrandfather and Grandmother Kennedy, with Ronald and Wallace, east of Otterville

One of my favourite books is Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner, set in the Cypress Hills in southern Saskatchewan where Stegner’s family homesteaded from 1914 to 1920.

51kM9JMRdaL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Wolf Willow, written through the eyes of Stegner as a young boy, describes how locals and First Nations perceived differences between Canadian red-coats and American blue-coats in the early decades of Canada’s Confederation:

“The important thing is the instant, compelling impressiveness of this man in the scarlet tunic. I believe I know, having felt it, the truest reason why the slim force of Mounted Police was so spectacularly successful, why its esprit de corps was so high and its prestige so great. I think I know how Law must have looked to Sioux and Blackfoot when the column of red coats rode westward in the summer of 1874.

Never was the dignity of the uniform more carefully cultivated, and rarely has the ceremonial quality of impartial law and order been more dramatically exploited. Since the middle of the 18th century the red coat of the British dragoons had meant, to Indian minds, a force that was non and sometimes anti-American. The contrast was triply effective now that the blue of the American cavalry had become an abomination to the Plains hostiles. One of the most visible aspects of the international boundary was that it was a color line: blue below, red above, blue for treachery and unkept promises, red for protection and the straight tongue. That is not quite the way a scrupulous historian would report it, for if Canada had been settled first, and the American West had remained empty, the situation might well have been reversed. Certainly Canada had its own difficulties with the tribes when the buffalo disappeared and the crisis came on; and though its treaty system was better considered and its treaties better kept than the American, still Canada in red coats hunted down its hostiles in 1885 just as the bluecoated Long Knives had used to do. But given the historical context, red meant to an Indian in the 1870’s friendship and protection, and it is to the honor of an almost over publicized force that having dramatized in scarlet the righteousness of the law it represented, it lived up to the dramatization.”

Canada is now 150 years old, still relatively young for a nation, with borders more defined by beaver trap lines then men bearing guns. Canadians have a unique character, built on a historical need to survive, together, in a harsh frontier. We’re an open country, recognized for our ability to invite and integrate many cultures. And, yet, from time to time, we sense a need to hold a little tighter to our identity as Canadians— to stand on guard against anyone who tries to make our decisions or force values on us….or otherwise tramples on our dignity.  In 2017, we’re feeling that strong tug, again, to define ourselves in relation to our neighbour, the United States.

Let’s look at this relationship through the eyes of dignity.

We can make space for mutual respect in our relationship, and self-respect. That doesn’t mean denying our differences. There are definitely some regions in the U.S. that respect Canada’s gay marriage and health care, and then there are others who call us socialist commies. From the Canadian side, there is respect for America’s’ competitiveness and military power, and disdain for U.S. politics, their arrogance, their gun laws.

We can aspire to a graceful, neighbourly, maybe even a sibling relationship with the United States. Why not, the U.S., our “big buddy”. We’re inextricably linked. We are both relatively young countries and our relationship is grounded in the same geography; the first peoples of this land did not see a boundary along the 49th parallel, they saw one big turtle island with a plethora of personalities in its vast diversity of landscape and ecosystems. The United States needs Canada, and Canada needs the United States. A shared sense of North American identity is valuable to both countries and we share a vast landmass inhabited by millions of people, many related.

3686The campaign celebrates key moments and people that have helped define Canada and what it can mean to ‘Be Nice’. – Roots Canada

Our current iteration of Canada and its identity, and the current iteration of the United States and its identity, are at an interesting impasse. As Canadians, we aren’t a country known for its provocation—but we pride ourselves on being tough and self-righteous and protective in the name of justice, and we celebrate our RCMP and WW1 and WW2 European battles in this frame. Of course, as we age, we recognize the nuances and the lack of sustainability of a two-dimensional identity. Canada the nice and Canada the kind is being questioned by our history with our First Nations.

As Canada grows into a more mature country, we need to consider our maturing relationship with our rather large bedfellow, the United States. In 1969, Pierre Trudeau famously said having America as a neighbour was like sleeping with an elephant:

Americans should never underestimate the constant pressure on Canada which the mere presence of the United States has produced. We’re different people from you and we’re different people because of you. Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt. It should not therefore be expected that this kind of nation, this Canada, should project itself as a mirror image of the United States.” (National Press Club, Washington).

President_Nixon_with_Prime_Minister_Trudeau_of_Canada_-_NARA_-_194762.tifAmerican President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in Ottawa, 1972

In 1982, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood reinforced this mirror image, describing the Canada-US border as a “one-way mirror: We see you but you can’t see us.” Atwood also criticized Canadians for becoming addicted to the one-way mirror of the Canadian-American border, neglecting that other mirror, their own culture.

As we grow into equality with our slightly older and more aggressive brother, there are sure to be situations that could provoke drama. Right now, there is a lot of flag-waving and “us vs. them” language as we move  into significant trade negotiations; our neighbour, the U.S., is asking us to do our part in a bigger way in the guardianship of the world; Americans are taking a different stance than us on refugees, and considering the size and openness of our shared border, this needs to be executed well.

We are indoctrinated to believe that relationships are full of drama; in fact we have entire industries built up around soap operas and reality television, and our news and history books reinforce a continual story of good vs bad, stronger and weaker, the conqueror and the vanquished. These opposing forces feed competition and a fear of being left behind, whether you are the bullied or the bully, with someone just waiting to take your spot. A healthy relationship, what I’m calling graceful, is made up of shared power, mutuality and belonging, and inherent value or dignity.

Shared power is fed by free expression, by being whom and what you are, and not by being what you think you should be or a limited version of yourself. Belonging is fueled by connection, by understanding and forgiving ignorance and transcending differences.  Finally, dignity is the simple recognition that despite any differences, there is an unconditional value to human beings as individuals, and collectively, including as citizens of a country. This value is honoured when we allow people and nations to have their own power, when we don’t try to solve all their problems for them, when we mind our own business as well as we do others.

In super-simplified terms, Canadians could potentially benefit from a more explicit sense of self and Americans a more explicit sense of other. By working together we expand the capacity of our citizens to continue the still young legacy of leading in the world.

The end of the drama in the relationship between Canada and our rather large bedfellow is going to take some trust—trusting ourselves, our neighbours and the bigger picture. Yes, it’s a big ask, but an ask with an even bigger payoff in terms of healthy relationships for citizens of both countries.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, July 27th, 2017

Protectionism, Global Trade and Finding Our Dignity in a Bottle of Ketchup!

This blog, I want to talk about pride and dignity on the national scale.  There are obvious signs of national pride— flags, parades, anthems, the traditional pomp and circumstance used to rally and demonstrate a belief in a country. When we’re looking for national dignity, the indicators can be a little more subtle, and can sometimes be found in the ordinary, for instance in a humble bottle of ketchup.

August 2016 074I grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, where fertile soil and the warm breeze blowing off Lake Erie create a lush micro-climate, a hospitable place to grow fruits and vegetables. Barring disease and hail, just about any seedling you set in the ground in May will flourish until the first frost.  This perfect mixture is particularly habitable for tomato plants. Consequently, many international food companies set up processing plants in the community: Bick’s, Campbell and Heinz were household names, and not just because their cans and jars were lined up on our pantry shelves, they were the names we saw on trucks and paycheques.

Tomatoes grown in southern Ontario could be found in a jar of Heinz ketchup, eaten with french fries in places as far away as Australia and Japan.  This may not be hard to believe for those who grew up in an age where free trade and globalization are normal.

As of 2012, more than 650 million bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup were sold worldwide. From 2000 to 2006, Heinz unsuccessfully experimented with a coloured ketchup.  The ‘EZ Squirt’, in vibrant green and purple just didn’t work. My kids still talk about the time our friend, Molly, a great cook, used neon ketchup to make her ribs; we ate blindfolded!

When Heinz first started making ketchup in 1876, then, without preservatives, their business was necessarily locally focused. Once preservatives were incorporated into the recipe, markets expanded and going to where the tomatoes grew for the processing also made good sense. In 1906 Heinz set up a ketchup processing plant in Leamington Ontario—a plant that ultimately became that town’s biggest employer. In 2014, 108 years later, Heinz tomato ketchup stopped being made in Leamington; and most of their ketchup is now made in Fremont, Ohio.

Besides the discovery of preservatives, what else changed to encourage an American company to set up a ketchup factory in southwestern Ontario in 1906, and then to shut that factory down in 2014? John_A_Macdonald_(ca._1875)

John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada, ca. 1875 

Let’s do a little history lesson on trade between Canada and the U.S. When Canada became a nation on July 1st, 1867, trade reciprocity with the United States that had been in place since the mid-1850s was no longer the norm. Just a few years earlier, near the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the U.S. Congress revoked the free trade deal between the British North American provinces and the U.S. In response, in 1879, Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald implemented ‘The National Policy’, a Canadian economic program calling for high tariffs on imported manufactured goods to protect the manufacturing sector in Canada. Playing tit-for-tat, the Americans put even stronger trade protections in place, with tariffs higher than what Canada had imposed. As a result, Canadian firms were at a disadvantage in competing in the U.S. but American firms could enter Canada. This inequity set up Heinz to establish their ketchup processing plant in Leamington, Ontario.

Fast forward to 2013.  H.J. Heinz Co.’s century-old plant at Leamington Ontario has 740 full time employees and 350 seasonal workers. The tomatoes it processes for Heinz account for half of Ontario’s $52 million dollars’ worth of crops. Heinz has just been purchased by Berkshire Hathaway and a Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital, for $23 billion. The new owners then decide to shut down their Leamington ketchup plant. Incidentally, in March 2015, Kraft announced a merger with Heinz. The resulting Kraft Heinz Company is the fifth largest food company in the world.

May 2017 144In late 2014, The French’s Food Co. LLC, famous for its mustard, started to sell ketchup in grocery stores. Buying tomato paste made from tomatoes grown in southwestern Ontario, and processed at the former Heinz plant in Leamington (and until very recently bottled as ketchup in Ohio), French’s rolled out a marketing campaign focused on “buying local”.  A social media backlash against Heinz’s and for French’s, related to Heinz’s  shutdown of the Leamington plant and French’s capitalizing on using 100% Canadian grown tomatoes, went viral.

Protectionism can be played as a zero-sum game, with real winners and losers. Protectionism is powerful, and the job losses, denied opportunities and local pain are real.

In recent months, President Donald Trump has denounced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the free trade deal in place among the U.S., Canada and Mexico since 1994, as “the worst trade deal ever signed by America”. Trump’s trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, initiated a 90-day consultation period and formal renegotiation will begin in August. Trump vows that NAFTA must be changed to better serve American interests, especially trade regimes for softwood lumber, dairy products, the automotive industry and pharmaceuticals.  We’re also nervous about energy and steel.

August 2016 081Tomatoes have, apparently, escaped his notice.

National pride is being deployed to market French’s new brand of ketchup. As a sign of support I tried this new brand; I care about the southern Ontario people, their farms, their jobs and their economy.

And, national pride will no doubt be rallied in support of Canadian (and American and Mexican) interests at the NAFTA renegotiation table. There will be more talk of protectionism.

Pride can be useful to build political and economic will. But what about national dignity, shouldn’t our own sense of who we are as Canadians also be at the negotiating table? Pride is not the same as dignity. Pride is dependent on what others think of us; dignity is innate, it’s what we know of ourselves as a country, it’s not dependent on what others think. Pride can become defensive; dignity protects self-interests by holding firm and strong on values.

August 2016 076So, let’s return to those tomato plants flourishing in southwestern Ontario.

French’s, owned by foreign multinational, U.K.-based Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC with a market cap of $46.72 billion, and including brands like Durex, Clearasil and Lysol, was taking those lovely, plump, red Canadian tomatoes to Ohio to bottle its new brand of ketchup.  Waving the Canadian flag even more vigorously, this spring, French’s committed to bottle its ketchup in Ontario.

Interesting side note: Loblaws, one of Canada’s largest companies, employing 200,000 Canadians, produces a PC brand of ketchup at a plant in Winona, Ontario that employs 430 people, using tomatoes from California.

What do Canadians know about our tomatoes and ketchup? We know that Canadian soil and weather and farmers can produce top-quality tomatoes. We know that international and domestic processors of ketchup want access to top-quality, reliable, reasonably priced sources of tomatoes. And, we know people around the world like ketchup on their french fries.

Beyond that, we know:

  • We all love a David-and-Goliath tale, and we root for the underdog (especially in hockey). How French’s (a multi-national) became the David to Heinz (another multi-national), the Goliath, is fascinating.  Heinz still produces lots of products in Leamington—HP Sauce, Bravo pasta sauce, Catelli tomato sauce, over 70,000 metric tonnes of products are produced by Heinz in Leamington. Who knew?
  • Even our tomatoes, as well as our softwood lumber, and milk solids, and oil and gas, and auto parts, and steel, and a host of other Canadian-produced resources and goods (not to mention services) — can be co-opted by the marketing of national pride.
  • Unless you are colour-blind, it’s best to avoid neon-coloured ketchup.

NAFTA, and its predecessor the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, have tied the North American continent’s economy together for three decades. As someone who has worked on projects all over the globe, I see Canada as a trading nation. According to Wikipedia, our total trade is worth more than two-thirds of our GDP, the second highest level in the G7 after Germany.  We’re a trade-dependent economy, an export-oriented economy. Seeing protectionism turning into the defining theme of the recent “America first” U.S. election concerns me. Yes, we’ve got loads of other partners in the E.U. and Asia-Pacific who want to bring down trade barriers. Yet our primary trading partner logically is our neighbor with whom we share the longest border in the world, the U.S.

What I’m wondering about is the effect of “America first” on how we, as Canadians, see our own economy, and choices. We can:

  1. Respond in kind, with our Canadian brand of national pride.  “Canada first!”  With honour and pride, it’s our reputation that makes us honourable or proud and we have to respond, aggressively, to aggressors, or risk losing that sense of worth. Revenge, retribution, vendettas, and ‘Tit-for-Tat’ reactions, are expected.
  2. Be the victim. Be a David to the American Goliath. Attract global sympathy, not by emphasizing either our own strength or inner worth as Canadians, but by complaining about the America-first trade aggressions. Focus on our powerlessness.
  3. Act with dignity. Operate from the belief that all people, and arguably, by extension nations, have dignity, inherent worth that exists independently of what others think. Yes, insults and attacks can try to take away our dignity as Canadians but, we can choose to exercise self-restraint in the game of “Tit-For-Tat” and direct our energy to negotiating agreements that reaffirm the soundness of Canada as a strong and resource-full trading nation. In any circumstance, we can act as masters of our own fate.

The first two options keep us in a reactive battle with not only the United States but potentially all of our trading partners.  Being moved to aggress or collapse in negotiation is not helpful in the long term and makes us vulnerable to the changing winds of global trade. The third option means standing in the eye of the storm, responsive to an inner strength and knowledge that is less dependent on the whims and upheavals of our partners.   I think you can tell the choice I’m leaning towards.

May dignity accompany our negotiators as we continue to engage with the complexity of globalization and our citizens as we make important daily choices in our purchases.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, July 13, 2017



Shoulders Squared: Celebrating Gender Equality in Canada

diane-and-donna-e1498694152446.jpgThis photo was taken in September of 1967, the year of Canada’s Centennial. My younger sister, Diane, and I were waiting for the bus to pick us up at our farm on the first day of school that fall.  Look at the posture. Squared shoulders, straight arms. We are keen to go back to school.

In 1967 we celebrated Canada’s Centennial.  It was a hopeful time and I remember my sister and I, two skinny fair-haired, blue-eyed farm girls, were invited to ride on a float in in the Centennial Parade down the main street of the village of Teeterville, Ontario. How times have changed, in the name of honoring the Canadian virtue of ‘Compassion’ we were dressed in burlap sacks, hair wild and faces blackened to represent poor children in Africa.

Fifty years later this wouldn’t fly, but the hope, our wide smiles and waving arms are vivid in my mind. The 1960s were a hopeful time. You didn’t talk openly about misogyny; this was lift-off for the age of empowerment.  Raised in a traditional family–it was our grandfather’s, father’s and then our younger brother’s names that were painted on the family barn–my sister and I were raised to believe we could be anything we chose to be.

FullSizeRenderFifty years later, in 2017, we celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, and our journeys since we were those young farm girls forced my sister and I to figure out how to navigate in ways to sustain those squared shoulders. My sister chose a more traditional role, closer to home; I chose a pathway less predictable than the women before me, and one that took me far from home.

Looking back…How did we get from 1967 to 2017, from young girls to women, in an age that promised gender equality yet didn’t, really, take down the practical barriers?  The answer, for me, lies in a fervent belief that our dignity was innate, that our sense of worth was never in question. 

Although I didn’t pay a lot of attention to politics as a young girl (hard to believe for people who knows me now), it was August of 1967, one month after the celebration of Canada’s Centennial, that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech in Atlanta, Georgia. Reflecting on King’s message, as an adult, allows me to understand how power and love are able to work together, in ways that sustain that sense of dignity in my sister and me, giving us both the temerity and compassion required to stare down systemic misogyny, when needed.  Here’s an excerpt:

5355384180_dfd3e21da9_oMartin Luther King speaking to a rally, 1967, Wikipedia

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change…And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually being contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with the resignation of power, and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What [we need to realize is] that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.” 

This is tricky. Power, alone, doesn’t work…power without love is cold and ruthless. It is power ‘over’ others which can easily erode their dignity. And, love, alone, doesn’t work either. Love without power is polite, conflict avoiding and can undermine your own dignity or that of others if you create victims.

Let me share a recent experience with misplaced love that explains this conundrum.

Donna 2016 2

One year ago, I made the decision to run for leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, a political party in Alberta. (Notice the squared shoulders in this campaign shot!)  I was well backed by a group of Millennials and others, however, after circumstances revealed themselves I chose to withdraw.  Coincidentally, the same night that Hilary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, and unexpectedly, the same afternoon that another female leadership candidate withdrew from the PC leadership race.

Everywhere I go, people pour out condolences that I had to put up with abuse as a female in politics. At a YWCA fund-raising dinner, Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, and several other dignitaries spoke of this harassment, and I was always included, as one of the victims. While I was clear that any abuse of any politician was offensive, I tried, often unsuccessfully, to explain that I had not been harassed and to restate my personal reasons for deciding to leave the race.

In fact, I felt really solid in my decision-making. In this PC leadership bid, our campaign team had two goals: We wanted to get the opportunity for me to be viable as a candidate in the second ballot, and we wanted to be able to talk about policy issues we cared about during the leadership campaign. By late last October it was clear to us that another leadership candidate, Jason Kenney, had sewn up the race, and that there would be no real talk of any policy issues or media coverage of the issues that our campaign cared about. So, we chose to step out at a logical decision-point.

I wasn’t angry about the leadership race or the process. But, I was angry that my message was being overlooked or twisted in supposed support of some higher or larger aim (protecting women in politics from harassment). Cast as a victim of misogyny, I actually lost my power and my voice.

Turning people into victims rarely works.   I learned that in Yemen.


Dr. Ahlam Binbriek of Mulkullah, Yemen, on right, with a young girl

In 2001, I founded Bridges, a Canadian volunteer-based humanitarian organization invited by Yemeni communities to teach and mentor local doctors, nurses and midwives, lawyers and judges, journalists, teachers and politicians. To maintain the dignity of the people we were training, including people like Ahlam, we had to see these people as our counterparts. Yes, they were vulnerable. But they could not be treated as powerless victims. They were not helpless. And, we weren’t white knights zooming in from the West to save them.

Combining power & love to sustain dignity, Martin Luther King style, is a recipe for leading change, sustainable change, often from the edge of the inside. This includes changes in how traditional, patriarchal families, workplaces and communities evolve to create the space for more gender equality. Yes, laws, rights and legal remedies are essential. Yet power, alone, won’t work especially when the people involved are people you love.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, July 1, 2017


Is Dignity on the Ballot?

As a recovering politician, I’m often ribbed about the lack of dignity in politics. Being a lawyer has conditioned me. To get ahead of all this, I’m often the first one to share jokes at a party…

Did you hear the one about… the honest politician, a generous lawyer and Santa Claus get into an elevator. As the lift travels from the ground floor up to the 10th floor, one-by-one they notice a $100 bill lying on the elevator floor? Which one picked up the $100 bill and handed it in at reception? Answer: Santa, of course, the other two don’t actually exist!

Seriously, though, we need to talk a little more about the dignity of politicians and the dignity of the people they represent, the voters. One of the most memorable moments in the 2016 U.S. election (yes, there were many) was Hilary Clinton’s warning that “dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot in this election.”

But isn’t dignity always on the ballot?

When I’m deciding who to choose as my representative—in federal, provincial and municipal politics, or on the board of directors of my local Co-op grocery store—one of my key questions is “how will this person see me, and others in my community?” Handing over my decision-making to someone else, which is what politics is all about, is a big deal. I want to have a strong sense that anyone who speaks on my behalf has the self-worth and the empathy required to engage diverse viewpoints (not just special interests with the loudest voices) and is committed to doing the hard work of generating practical and creative solutions, taking these different perspectives into account.

I’m looking for politicians who preserve their own sense of dignity, and who likewise can recognize the dignity in me, the citizen.

One of the questions most often posed to me, right now, is why I agreed to sit on the transition team for the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta following the election of Jason Kenney as the party’s leader. As a ‘progressive’ in the PC party, a few party members and many people with different political affiliations, have said I betrayed progressives by accepting a seat at that table. So, why did I accept? The answer to that question is rooted in dignity.

Having a voice at a decision-making table is not something I accept lightly. I’m incapable of window-dressing, and abhor tokenism. And, there is no compensation, so critics can’t accuse me of grabbing the cash. It’s a serious decision. It involves diligence, an understanding of the people I’m there to represent, and a willingness to speak up, with respect and all the influence I can muster, especially when my opinion isn’t mainstream.  Sitting at a table where I’m obviously a minority point-of-view, I have to hold on tight to my own dignity.   The idea of betrayal suggests a lack of loyalty, nothing could be further from the truth – the distinction is that my loyalty is not to a dogma but to value, the value of responsible representation.


PC youth wave at the Varsity constituency Progressive Conservative AGM this spring (and a few of us who aren’t so young)

The reason I accepted a seat at the transition table is to ensure that the interests and ideas of generations younger than the baby-boomers are represented. “Whoa”, you say, “she’s 57, a baby-boomer, and how is it she feels qualified to make sure that the priorities of younger PCs are heard in the PC-Wildrose merger talks?” Fair question. For the last 18 months, I’ve been surrounded by Albertans, most under the age of 40, who want to have their voices heard in political decision-making. Mentoring these Millennials, Gen X’ers, Gen Y’s has been inspiring. Over cups of coffee and glasses of beer, I’ve learned a lot about what they want and how they see the world. In the coming elections, IF these generations choose to vote, they will have more influence in decision-making than the baby-boomers and older generations. This will be a turning point in our democracy.

May 2017 019Steven Lumbala, a young leader engaging youth perspectives in Alberta via twitter account @TheYoungBluesCA

What do younger voters want? To move beyond anecdotal experiences, I’ve taken a deep dive into the research. Not surprisingly, most of the focus has been on Millennials (people born in 1980-1999), the largest cohort of eligible voters for the first time ever in the next election cycle. Environics Institute has done a social values survey on Millennials. The Manning Centre has also commissioned national and provincial research.  Abacus Data has recently released some helpful data on the changing Canadian electorate.

What am I hearing? Many younger voters (especially those paying taxes) don’t believe money grows on trees; they want balanced budgets and economic stewardship, and often look to market-oriented approaches to solve tough issues like environment and health care. That’s wise; there are a fair number of us baby-boomers, and most of us will hopefully live long enough to need seniors’ housing and care.

They care about individual rights and freedom of choice, and protecting the vulnerable. And, yes, many want to make sure that includes the vulnerable in the LGBTQ community. So, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in junior and senior high schools serve a much needed purpose. As an MLA, I saw the same inside schools. GSAs allow kids, gay and straight, to come together and have shown to decrease teen suicides as some homes are not welcoming to LGBTQ kids, and a GSA can be a safe place for them. We have to defend that space.

May 2017 007My husband, Laurie, and I joining others in Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade, September 2016.

And, younger voters don’t like political tone that is negative, reactive and divisive. If you have a different point of view, fine, but frame it with a ‘why’ and offer a different approach (don’t just say no to things, like a price on carbon).  This means calling out politicians who use anger to rally voters. And, it means being willing to talk across party lines.

IMG_4781Margo Purcell, Calgary (on left) moderating this panel as co-founder of a beyond partisan political movement in Alberta, The Political Accelerators

More than three centuries ago, Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher often considered to be the source of the contemporary idea of dignity, cautioned the elite not to exploit people or treat them as a means to an end. Good ideas endure.

The other thing I’m doing is encouraging younger generations to consider running for elected office. Being a politician isn’t for the faint of heart, though, and individuals considering this pathway need to prepare themselves and their families. Falling from grace in the political world is costly and the public reaction is merciless. Why are people so quick to judge their politicians? Even seeming to relish politicians’ indiscretions? It’s a bad sign, really, because it often signals that citizens have severed their identification with politicians, the very people they elected to speak on their behalf.

That younger politicians, and citizens, may be motivated to change political tone is heartening. There is great dignity in politicians offering themselves to voters as authentic, competent and accountable, and to citizens holding them to account. In 1859, John Stuart Mill famously said: “The worth of the state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”  In 2017, allow me to edit slightly: “The dignity of the state, in the long run, is the dignity of the individuals composing it.”

I’ve witnessed dignity in the voice of not only the Millennials but all age groups that simultaneously hold progressive social and conservative fiscal ideas and the voices of those who are tired of fear-politics, dogma and divisive ideals.  This is why I’m at the table, because I believe that my voice matters.  Walking away, as a sign of solidarity with ‘progressive’ ideals, leaves the table more of an echo chamber.  I’m not betraying anyone, I’m choosing to believe that our political system is as strong as its voices; thanks to history and hard work I have an invitation to be at this table. I accept this invitation and its inherent responsibility seriously. I’m here to represent; that’s what politics is all about.

How do you see dignity on the ballot? 

Donna Kennedy-Glans


Making home a much bigger place


Tomas Rocha, seasonal worker from Mexico working in southern Ontario

Last blog I told the story of my esteemed friend, Dr. Al-Guneid, today I want to extend that conversation to other political and economic migrants and refugees who find themselves living and working in Canada and abroad.

I want to talk about the dignity of communities and nations hosting refugees.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s leader, has been hailed as a leader who saved the continent’s “collective dignity” with her open-door immigration policy. And, now, under the leadership of Emmanuel Macron, France may follow suit. Will others?

Even when the doors are open, as they are in countries like Canada, it’s a struggle to sustain that dignity at the front lines. In Red Deer, Alberta, Principal Dan Lower and teachers at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School worked with RCMP to diffuse an anti-Muslim protest after someone posted a video on social media of a fight between a small group of Syrian and Canadian students. Wielding authority could have been an option for Principal Lower, but the tone of his response honoured the dignity of all students at the high school. Yes, all the students involved in the fight—four Syrians and four Canadians—were suspended for one week, and the facts were clarified:


Principal Dan Lower, Red Deer Alberta, Linkedin profile photo

“From that video a post was put on Facebook and was sent around stating that the Syrians are allowed to go around whipping Canadians and that is because of their religious beliefs,” Lower said in an interview. “That is the genesis behind this outrage. And that is simply not the case.”


Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach, credits to Nilufer Demir, DHA Agency, Turkey

It was this photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background drowned on September 2nd, 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea that blew open the hearts of Canadians to the fate of Syrian refugees. Kurdi’s family had reportedly been trying to reach Canada.

It’s impossible though to relate to each and every migrant trying to escape from the hell of their own home country. Yes, we care. Many of us pause, and our hearts sink, when we hear the news stories—in May, more than 30 migrants, mostly toddlers, drowned when 200 people without life jackets fell from a boat into the sea off the Libyan coast before they could be hauled into waiting rescue boats.  Tracking the stats—7,000+ migrants plucked from boats in international waters off the western coast of Libya in a week; 1,300 people died this year on the world’s most dangerous crossing for migrants; more than 50,000 migrants have been rescued at sea and brought to Italy in the first four months of 2017.  At G7 Summits, and other international gatherings, countries, like Italy, who are directly affected by these mass migrations and International Aid Agencies push to put migration, Libya’s stabilization and African development at the top of the global agenda.

Even with open hearts, up-to-date statistics, the power of laws and strong allies, many of us really don’t know how these mass migrations will end, and we aren’t very certain of our role in the solutions. Canada is a country built on migration; we’re a poster child for the theory that immigrants have the capacity to make a country stronger, at the same time we are overwhelmed.

hawkingStephen Hawking, photo credits to NASA

In a December edition of The Guardian newspaper, Stephen Hawking issued a stern warning.  Claiming that this is “the most dangerous time for our planet,” Hawking, acknowledging his own status as an educated elite cautioned: “Don’t ignore these outpourings of crude populism; economic inequality is widening, and we need to work together, more than ever, to break down barriers, retrain people, and even encourage global development as the only way the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home.

Hawking concludes with an appeal to bring a sense of oneness and humility into our exercise of power. He’s asking us to take the time to recognize the dignity of every human on this planet, and cautioning us of the consequences of our failure to do so.

Dealing with diversity in our world has always been daunting. In the current reality where we have an unprecedented surge of refugees from war-torn countries and President Trump’s attempts to keep foreign Muslims out of the U.S., how can we heed Hawking’s advice, and figure out ways to see the dignity of every refugee, child and adult, and at the same time, sustain the dignity of our citizens and as a country?

What’s it going to take? Better statistics, stronger laws, more money, further innovation, fiercer strategies for social media, strategic alliances? Yes, to all of this! But, all this won’t be enough until we make this dignity quest quite personal.

What does that look like? Well, here are a couple of real-life examples. And, I invite you to share your own, via Instagram or as a comment to this blog. We’re all going to have to hone these skills.

Chief Justice

I want to share a powerful story I heard, first-hand, from Canada’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin, at the University of Calgary in May 2016. I was sitting close enough to snap this photo on my phone.

What’s the most challenging issue facing the world today, in the opinion of the very pinnacle of Canada’s legal system? “How do we deal with … the ‘other,’ with the person who is different in a majoritarian society?

And, where lies the solution? “We cannot delegate the business of building an inclusive society to government or the courts. They can help, but they can never be the foundation…In the ongoing process of building an inclusive society, it is individuals who are on the front line with their day-to-day actions.” 

Yikes. This woman who knows more about the legal system than nearly anyone else in the country is pointing to me, and to you, to fill this gap!

And, then, she explains why she thinks this way and my heart opens wide.

And, I believe I can do this.

Chief Justice McLachlin grew up on a ranch near Pincher Creek, a stunningly beautiful small town in southern Alberta.  During centennial celebrations at her hometown, a few years ago, a First Nations man by the name of Eric approached her, shook her hand and quietly put a gift into her palms, a pair of earrings handcrafted from mother of pearl. She didn’t know Eric, and when she chatted with him, Eric explained he was giving her this gift out of respect for her parents. And, then he explained why.

Decades earlier, when the Chief Justice was a girl, on a hot Sunday in July, Eric was sitting in a car outside McLachlin’s home discussing some business with McLachlin’s father, Ernest. Eric’s wife and young children were also in the car, sweating in the heat, when McLachlin’s mother, Eleanora, came out to the car and invited Eric and his family into the house for tea and cake to celebrate Ernest’s birthday. Eric never forgot that day; it was the first time he’d been inside the home of a white person.

This experience affected the Chief Justice, profoundly. Quoting Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, from his book The Idea of Justice, McLachlin argues that a just society needs three things: just laws, strong institutions, and actual justice in the lives of its citizens.  In her opinion, the most basic responsibility for creating an inclusive society rests with individuals.

Sitting there in that auditorium at the University of Calgary, listening to the story of Eric’s family and  hospitality, my thoughts went to my own mother, Eleanor, and the way she engages with seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico who live and work on our family farm.

Employing temporary foreign workers is controversial, especially at times of high unemployment among Canadians. These men have been coming to our farm for many years – and although technology has made separation from their own families a little more bearable (their first priority is hooking up high speed internet, to Skype with their wives and kids at home), they still get homesick.  My mom, and the entire family, invite these men into their lives in ways that extend beyond work. Mom often cooks and bakes for them, celebrates their birthdays, talks to them about their families, takes them grocery shopping every Friday and opens up her garden to them.


This is my mom, Eleanor. She turns 80 this year, and is still keen to plant flowerbeds and vegetable gardens.

When I was younger, I worked planting and picking tobacco alongside workers from Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Jamaica, Nigeria, France and Poland. Tillsonburg, a southern Ontario town at the heart of the Canadian tobacco industry and memorialized in a song by Stompin’ Tom Connors, is a twenty minute drive from our farm. And, yes, my back does still ache when I hear that word….Tillsonburg!

Canada’s seasonal agricultural workers program was launched in 1966, and 51 years later, we rely on temporary foreign workers to support the Agriculture sector in this country.  In 2016, a Government of Canada Standing Committee reviewed the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and proposed changes to reduce the risk of exploitation of these workers. Advocates for migrants’ and workers’ rights want more focus on the negative mental health impacts of isolation and precarious working conditions. Many of these seasonal workers spend four to six months on farms in Canada, separated from their families, and with limited opportunity to establish roots in their part-time communities. The feeling of living in between communities is challenging for some – I saw the same with coworkers in the energy sector who worked on rotation, their families living in Canada, and their workplaces in remote communities across the globe, including Nigeria, Yemen, Newfoundland, Trinidad and Indonesia. Some of my colleagues thrived in this yo-yo, pulsing, lifestyle and enjoyed the tax-free income. Others hated the nomadic lifestyle, felt they were disconnected from all community. Thankfully, many had the option to decline this work; not all Mexican seasonal workers coming to farms in Canada have the same choices.


The question of who needs who comes to mind.  

Seemingly, we in the ‘land of opportunity’ have the benevolence to give ‘these people’ a home. The truth; and the dignified perspective, is that we are ALL ‘these people’.  People who share more similarities than differences in that home, security and relationship are key to our well-being and similar in that the threat of persecution, if allowed, will cause conflict.  Protectionist and isolationist philosophy is not only no longer feasible as a ‘fix’, it is not, in my opinion, advantageous to the collective.  On the other end of the continuum, it’s also not effective to turn all migrants into powerless victims.

The words from our Chief Justice’s speech, the “most basic responsibility for creating an inclusive society rests with individuals”, are a rally cry to find understanding and the assets of new-comers (as well as our neighbors of all backgrounds) and like the two Eleanors, create a space of hospitality that makes home a much bigger place.

When You Can’t Go Home

May 2017 070This is proud grandfather, Dr. Abdulkader Al-Guneid, cradling newborn grandson, Adrian, while his daughter Nagwan looks on.

Dr. Al-Guneid and his wife, and their youngest son, now live with Nagwan and her husband, and their newborn son, in Calgary. Other children and grandchildren are spread throughout the United States and Saudi Arabia. One son and his family remain in Yemen.  The family home in Taiz, Yemen was catastrophically shelled by Houthi-Saleh militia on February 3rd, 2017.

The loss of their physical home was a crushing blow and coincided with U.S. President Trump’s announcement of a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. Dr. Al-Guneid’s decision to leave Yemen was motivated by more than this loss of possessions, caught up in the civil and proxy war raging in Yemen he was forcibly confined for 300 days. The Houthis, a predominantly Shiite group from northern Yemen, are accused by Saudi Arabia of being proxies of Iran, Saudi’s rival power in the region.  

On August 5th, 2016, at 2:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Al-Guneid was violently kidnapped from his home in Taiz. He was taken to Sana’a and was forcibly ‘disappeared’ in the inhumane conditions of the National Security Jail.  On May 20th, 2016, after 300 days of captivity and excruciating distress for his family, he was released.

Why was this doctor in Taiz a target for Houthi rebels? Because he chose assert the truth.  He tirelessly chronicled the war in Yemen, posting information about airstrikes, casualties and protests in Taiz. The rest of the world have had little awareness of the war in Yemen, and rebels wanted to sustain this information blockade.

IMG_1951Three-hundred days of captivity were heart-wrenching for family members. One of Nagwan’s favourite books is Generals Die in Bed, a novella by Canadian writer Charles Harrison based on his own experiences as a young soldier fighting in the trenches of World War I. “War is ugly” Nagwan laments, “only civilians pay the price.” These photos from Taiz, Yemen, graphically reinforce this point.


Having enjoyed the peace and freedom of Canada for my entire life, I am compelled to ask Dr. Al-Guneid how he coped as a political prisoner of war.

He responds, speaking with and of dignity and honour. These two words are often used as synonyms, but there is a difference, he says. Choosing to stand up to armed rebels attacking his home city of Taiz reflected honour, a quality recognizable in his social media activities.  It also required dignity, a sense of worth he could recognize inside himself, whether or not it was seen by others.  

While in jail, Dr.  Al-Guneid helped treat some of the injuries of the rebel soldiers. He also chose to ask for nothing. “I needed nothing,” he said, “and that took away their ability to deny me anything.” Other prisoners asked for fresh air, sun, the ability to talk, and the captors wanted you to beg, cry, swear, to lose your dignity. Dr. Al-Guneid’s choice, to ask for nothing, preserved his innate sense of worth.

And, now, after the horror of war, being jailed, and losing his physical home in Taiz, what does Dr. Al-Guneid think about? He reflects upon when this journey will end. The most horrible thing—worse than death, or being in jail—is being ‘in between’, in a place that is not quite home for a time that is not defined. As a ‘refugee’, the not knowing when this will end is the worst, he says, quietly.

As a temporary resident in Canada, Dr. Al-Guneid is using his voice to find ways for Yemenis to be able to seek their future at home. He’s convinced that the National Dialogue Outcomes hosted in Yemen do reflect the priorities of Yemeni people, and asks for support from the region to ensure these recommendations are implemented. Not only would this be positive for the Yemenis, but for the entire Middle East region.

IMG_2534Young Yemeni girl in a neighbourhood in northern Taiz Yemen, 2016

In the meantime, while Dr. Al-Guneid enjoys time with Nagwan and her family, living with the uncertainty is challenging. United States travel bans on Muslims create barriers for Dr. Al-Guneid’s family; he and his wife cannot easily travel to Florida to visit their other daughter and her children.  

What moves me, listening to Dr. Al-Guneid tell his story, is his commitment to preserve his own sense of dignity, whatever the circumstances. What is most deeply disturbing, is taking in how this family, or any displaced family, bears the weight of not-knowing. He has lost access to the sovereignty of his home country. Without a sense of this being temporary or permanent, how then do people actually settle?  

Holding onto dignity in the face of persecution is inspiring. One of my favourite books is Man’s Search for Meaning by holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Frankl believed people are primarily motivated by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life”, and this meaning can propel them to overcome painful experiences, from captivity to cancer.

Persecution has many faces, less obvious than being thrown into prison in your previously safe place of origin.  Dignity in the face of uncertainty is a truth that we all live with and yet hide from ourselves with false security.  Changes—from the miniscule to the catastrophic– are part of life, managing these changes is a skill. I am both enthused and impressed at this feat in Dr. Al-Guneid and when taken, story by story, by each of our immigrants.  

I invite you to share any stories of dignity under persecution or uncertainty that we might learn and grow from. Please keep an eye on this blog for a continuation of these thoughts on ‘dignity of the immigrant/refugee’ and our Canadian dignity.  

Thank You,

Donna Kennedy- Glans

Looking for Dignity

So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Bob Dylan

Through The Lens of Dignity: Cultural appropriation. Cultural commodification. Cultural empathy. Cultural reconciliation.

This week Write magazine’s Hal Niedzviecki has resigned in the wake of an uproar triggered by his encouragement to writers to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you.”

Jonathan Kay wades in via Twitter lamenting “the mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot. Sad and shameful.” And, then he, too, quits his job; Kay was editor at Walrus magazine.

Reaction from indigenous artists and writers in Canada and their white allies is swift. The language of war pervasive. Dr. Alika Lafontaine, a friend, and well-respected healthcare voice in Alberta, takes to social media to denounce the power imbalance: “He [Jonathan Kay] now has a bully pulpit to push forward his position, while it takes an army of Indigenous writers to balance the narrative.”

This debate unfolds in the shadow of the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their efforts to shine light on common ground among indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.

Canada, calling itself the home of pluralism and cultural diversity, must face this polarization and identity-based conflict.

We have choices. We can continue to deepen the divides, or worse, we can choose to play polite on the very values that define us. Neither option is appealing. So, as Bob Dylan said “I wonder what it’s going to take?”  How do we allow cultural expression to evolve, with sensitivity and respect? Over generations, this learning-from and responding-to the derived influences of other cultures has stimulated richness, appreciation and brilliance. Think Joseph Conrad, Marc Chagall, Alexis de Tocqueville, Bela Bartok, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan.

In fact, it’s Bob Dylan who pollinated my thinking on how to tackle this cultural conundrum we find ourselves in. In his song, “Dignity”, Dylan shares the story of his quest to find the elusive quality of dignity, in himself and others. The lyrics are a powerful reminder of how– even in the most well-meaning attempts to build bridges between people, places and issues—we choose to sacrifice dignity and to propagate humiliation instead, turning ourselves or others into victims, or less-than- human objects.

Near the end of the song, Dylan scoffs at the notion of finding images of positive dignity: “Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/Dignity never been photographed”. Thank you, Bob Dylan. These very lines triggered a powerful response in this rookie photographer. I’ve set out on my own quest: I’m looking to find dignity in a human face. We know what the absence of dignity looks like, and feels like; lack of dignity is obvious and the feeling is gut wrenching.  Conversely, I wonder, what the presence of dignity looks like and how does it feel? Can we learn to recognize and to build dignity in ourselves and in others?

And, perhaps, our ability to talk about cultural appropriation, cultural commodification and cultural empathy could be enhanced if we tried to view the world through the lens of dignity. First Nations often speak of respect. While mutual respect is the aspiration, recognizing dignity in ourselves and in others may be a necessary first step in that journey. We’re born with dignity; we’re not born with respect. Respect isn’t innate; it’s earned, through our actions, it is seen.

Nelson Mandela and Michael J. Fox, two people rich in the experience of dignity, remind us to hold onto it: “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered,” warns Fox.

I’ve had the privilege to experience diversity in culture not only in our beautiful country but around the world. And I have some questions about the dignity of what I have seen.

April 2017 120

This didgeridoo player in Sydney, Australia, performing for the crowds along the quay and selling his CDs, caught my full attention. I stopped, not just to listen to the soulful sounds but to ponder the dignity of this situation. It was complex. Was this indigenous musician turning his culture into a commodity (and what was my role in that)? Or maybe it was simply wonderful that this young man derived pleasure and income from a culturally-attuned source.

I found myself queasy about taking my sons to visit villages of long-necked tribes in rural Thailand, conflicted between exposing them to new cultures and the idea that we played a role in perpetuating harmful cultural traditions that erode dignity. I find that I scorn fashion models who expropriate First Nations’ feather head-dresses.

But the lines in this sand are faint and the winds continue to blow across them. We are clumsy in our attempts to show respect and to honour the dignity of all cultures in this increasingly connected world.

Later in this same trip to Australia, I had the opportunity to visit “Australia’s No. 1 Aboriginal Culture Centre” in Katoomba, where the Waradah dance troupe entertained tourists. This young woman, below, was one of the Aboriginal performers, and while her performance was professional, and much appreciated, my mind continued to churn about the dignity of this cultural commodification. Certainly, there was dignity in the fact that she wanted to share her culture with outsiders, and that I wanted to learn more about her culture. But there was also an uneasiness. How could I really be sure how this young woman felt about her role? The same questions could be asked of the hula dancers in Hawaii, and of thousands of others who share their culture with others as part of their livelihood.

April 2017 143


There have been times in my life where I was certain that I was in that moment sharing culture, and dignity was present.  On reflection, I can see that the difference was a knowing; by having a personal relationship with the person of another culture and a reciprocal understanding of our expectations and motives, it was easy for both us to hold our dignity.

cropped-cropped-img_00381.jpgIn this photo, I’m holding a microphone for First Nations Elder Blair Thomas. Together, we’re officiating at a wedding ceremony for mutual friends in Calgary, traditional Blackfoot territory in Treaty 7 area. Dignity is palpable. We are both aware of the spirituality of this moment, and of the connections across cultures and faith.

In this discussion, I also consider the work of Janice Tanton, a professional artist at her studio in the Banff Centre, also Treaty 7 territory.  Not First Nations by birth, Janice has been adopted by Elder Tom Crane Bear of the Siksika Nation, and has been given the Blackfoot name, Iniskim-Aki, Buffalo Stone Woman.

March 2017 3 006In her canvas, “Honour of the Crown”, Janice renders a stack of blankets, including several iconic Hudson’s Bay blankets, topped with a crown, piled on a buffalo robe and human skulls. A raven sits perched atop the crown.

Janice’s art is exceptional. She is among Canada’s most promising artists.

Janice is also a friend, and she’s invited me to view this canvas in her studio. My reaction is raw. I feel sharp stabs of guilt, shivers of shame, and the heavy weight of accountability. I wonder, can some good come out of wallowing in this pain?

Looking at this through the lens of dignity is daunting. Is Janice’s work forcing me to see how we have stripped away the dignity of First Nations peoples generationally? Or, is she trying to strip away my dignity, and the dignity of all colonialists?

Janice’s response? “My role as the author of this work is to present for consideration, symbolic imagery to which the viewer can bring their own experience, reflect and consider their own narrative within this piece and to act as a catalyst for deep conversation.”

Okay, I wonder.  I see how I feel about the past but  what about the possibility of shoring up dignity…of present-day, living and breathing First Nations people…colonialists…or anyone? I’ve been following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work closely in Canada, and understand the need for public vindication, public acknowledgement of the suffering by First Nations’ generations as a way to dignify that suffering. Their final report is explicit: “For [reconciliation] to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” Janice’s painting certainly witnesses and dignifies that pain.

But, surely, there can be more. Reconciliation can’t just look backwards. We must also set the stage for a shared future. As the Commission’s report says: “Reconciliation must inspire Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to transform Canadian society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace, and prosperity on these lands we now share.”

I accept that art is not all about beauty and aesthetics. Art is sometimes meant to be provocative. Yet it does not escape my notice that, in this photo, Janice’s face and body hold dignity. In spite of the complexities—being a non-indigenous woman adopted by a First Nations Elder, and standing in the space between those two peoples—Janice has a conviction of her role, her voice and her message. There is great dignity in that.

Emily Carr (1871-1945) is arguably Canada’s most recognized female artist, and decades ago, like Janice, she chose to stand in the space between European immigrants to Canada and the First Nations communities. Carr’s commitment to depicting the raw magnificence of both nature and the First Nations peoples in her art is obvious to anyone who has seen her works, or listened to her words:

“We may not believe in totems, but we believe in our country; and if we approach our work as the Indian did with his singleness of purpose and determination to strive for the big thing that means Canada herself, and not hamper ourselves by wondering if our things will sell, or if they will please the public or bring us popularity or fame, but busy ourselves by trying to get near to the heart of things, however crude our work may be, it is liable to more sincere and genuine.” Emily Carr, Modern and Indian Art (1929)


Notwithstanding the sincerity with which she honoured the dignity of First Nations peoples, Carr’s depiction of West Coast indigenous culture has been criticized by some as cultural appropriation. The Vancouver Art Gallery curates several of Carr’s works, and comments on their website: “Her depiction of abandoned and decaying poles and villages increasingly devoid of human life imparted the impression of a dying culture. From today’s perspective, this well-intended but naive approach to documenting the negative impact of colonialism is problematic, playing a part in the “construction of the imaginary Indian,” and is subject to the same criticism directed at any of her contemporaries who engaged in cultural appropriation.”

In my imagination, I see Emily Carr standing beside her nearly finished canvas in 1931—“Big Raven”—arms crossed, shoulders squared, her face exuding great personal dignity—irrespective of her critics, then, or now.

Where to from here?

From today’s perspective, is the operative word here “reconciliation”? A process of acknowledgment that harm has been done, apologizing and re-friending.  We have not always been good friends to our First Nations people, their culture has been appropriated – or seized as the word means, and they are understandably wary.  As we who have been in the privileged culture recognize this, we too are sensitized and this can be a messy place to be.

As I said, I’m no longer satisfied with continued divisiveness or polite indifference.  In the absence of running a continuum between collapsing and aggressing on these issues (appropriation, commodification, reconciliation) we come to composure.  Composure is that still point of dignity, where sensitivity and respect are applied and not just idealized.  It’s time for conversation, for understanding and for the end of the repeating cycle of offending and defending that’s been happening since first contact.  This means the need for conversation, for listening, for relationship.  The effect of original cultural assumptions, the original misinterpretation of inequality – colonists didn’t see the dignity of the First People and over time this belief has been transferred.  Patience will be  necessary as people re-claim their dignity on both sides – recognizing undignified behavior and dignity lost is painful and pain can be ugly.

What’s happening in our media and social media is not conversation, it is debate and reconciliation is not an outcome of debate.  Debates lead to winners and losers and if we have learned anything I am hoping that we can see that if there is a loser we all lose and there is no dignity in that.