This First Person article is the experience of Alvin Ma, a second-generation Chinese Canadian. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I tried to avoid eye contact and slump in my chair, but it didn’t work. It was the start of my Grade 4 school year and for the fourth consecutive year, my name was called to receive “additional English language instruction.”
It didn’t matter that I could fully comprehend the Guinness Book of Records I purchased from the Scholastic Book Fair or that I read the Vancouver Sun sports section every morning. I was going back to ESL.
I was born in Canada and grew up speaking English with my parents. My Chinese-born mother immigrated to Canada as a high school student and my father, also an immigrant from Hong Kong in the 1970s, taught culinary classes in English. However, my grandparents and other elderly family members were not fluent in English and spoke predominantly Cantonese at home.
It’s why my parents put down Cantonese as the language most spoken at home when filling out my public school registration form.
It’s also the reason we believe I was placed in English language learner classes (ESL) despite the fact I was born in Canada and spoke English fluently.
I don’t have negative memories of these ESL classes or teachers themselves.
But as a kid, being placed in those classes made me feel less than a full-fledged Canadian.
I just wanted to be treated like the “CBC” (Canadian-born Chinese) classmates who did not require these ESL classes. Some of these students would occasionally flaunt their English abilities and poke fun at those perceived to be “fresh off the boat.” I don’t remember making fun of people, but I do remember wanting to prove that I was better than others in English — thinking a superior grasp of the language would make me somehow more “Canadian.”
Even if I secretly found ’90s Cantonese pop songs such as 每天愛你多一些 and Sugar in the Marmalade catchy, I listened to Shania Twain. I unfailingly watched every Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. Twenty-two years before Simu Liu’s rendition at the Juno Awards, I was able to effortlessly recite the “I AM CANADIAN” rant in its entirety.
I distanced myself from my Chinese heritage and purposely failed assessments at Chinese school to prove I was more Canadian than Chinese. My mother knew I would only speak to her in English, and there was an unspoken understanding that she was to speak only English to me when she came to my school to pick me up.
When I asked my mother if she thought it was odd that I was placed in ESL for so many years, she shrugged.
Considering that my grandparents supervised me during weekdays, my parents reasoned that “additional English language instruction” would help my education in the long term.
Then one day and without any explanation, I was put into the regular stream of Grade 5 students. My student record simply noted that my ESL status had been delisted. I felt relieved, but I remained self-conscious of my pronunciation of words and tried to avoid a stutter that would label me as anything but a born-in-Canada Canadian.
Years after I graduated, my elementary school faced allegations that it falsely inflated the number of English learners in order to get more government funding.
As an adult, I know now that neither my fluency in Cantonese nor perceived accent makes me any less Canadian. Years of academic research and presentations made me a confident speaker in multiculturalism-related issues.
But I hadn’t really considered the impact of those ESL classes until I met a 10-year-old student through a tutoring job. As his mom left the room, she said these parting words: “你需要努力，進步你的英文分” (you must work hard to improve your English mark).
He indignantly responded in English, “Stop bothering me in Chinese if you want me to improve!”
That student was a mirror of my younger self: a second-generation Canadian who desperately tried to prove his English fluency by shunning Chinese.
Although I wanted to avoid confrontation, I plucked up my courage. I told him — and by extension my younger self — that knowledge of another language is a strength; not an embarrassment to hide. My student nodded, but if my journey is an indicator, it might take many years for him to comprehend my message. I just hope the message sinks in eventually.
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Many federal government employees balking at returning to offices – CBC News
The federal government is facing pushback from employees reluctant to return to government offices after more than two years working from home.
Online forums for public servants have exploded in recent weeks with comments about the prospect of returning to offices, with employees comparing notes on the hybrid work plans each department is planning to adopt.
One comment by a Health Canada manager urging employees to return to the office, in part, to provide employees at a nearby Subway restaurant with more hours, blew up into a series of sarcastic memes online.
Public service unions say that while some employees want to return to working in government offices or are happy with a hybrid arrangement, a majority want to keep working from home as Canada experiences a seventh wave of COVID-19.
“We have done studies of our membership that show that 60 per cent of our members would prefer to stay in a work from home situation, 25 per cent would like to do a hybrid and 10 per cent would like to come back to the office full time,” said Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents about 70,000 workers, including scientists and computer specialists.
Union wants remote work included in collective agreements
Carr said the union has been flooded with messages from concerned members.
“I would say that our inbox is now 90 per cent about return to the office, how people are not feeling comfortable, how they have questions about masking requirements, about the need and the necessity to come into the office when they can work in the safety of their own home and do the work efficiently.”
Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which has called for a suspension of the return to the office, said his members have long favoured hybrid work. They feel the return to the office is being rushed and that their concerns aren’t being addressed, he said.
CAPE has more than 20,000 members including economists, translators, employees of the Library of Parliament and civilian members of the RCMP.
“By and large, the people that don’t want to go back into the office have been fairly vocal about it,” said Phillips.
“They haven’t even addressed … in a lot of cases, accommodation needs.”
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) — the largest federal government union, with nearly 230,000 members — is calling on the government to be flexible about bringing employees back into the office and to address their anxieties.
“We know that most of our members are still working remotely, and many want to continue having that flexibility,” the union said in a statement. “Remote work has become a part of everyday life for many workers and we’ll continue to fight to enshrine it in our collective agreements during this round of bargaining with Treasury Board and agencies.”
‘Hybrid work is here to stay’: Treasury Board
In an interview with CBC News, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier said hybrid work is the future of the federal public service. She said it is up to each department or agency to figure out how to make it work while keeping employees safe and getting the job done.
“Hybrid work is here to stay,” said Fortier. “So we need to really understand that hybrid work will be part of how we deliver programs and services to Canadians. I know that a lot of people believe that COVID is gone, but we’re still in a COVID space.”
The latest debate over where public servants should work was sparked by a memo from Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette on June 29, urging public service managers to develop hybrid models of work that meet the operational requirements of their departments.
“Now is the time for us to test new models with a view to full implementation in the fall, subject to public health conditions,” she wrote.
Charette said hybrid work models offer “meaningful opportunities” such a more nationally distributed workforce and more flexibility for employees while bringing people back together in an office has benefits such as enhanced generation of ideas, knowledge transfer and building a strong public service culture.
Different plans for different federal departments
That memo prompted managers to start ramping up plans for employees to start to return to government offices after Labour Day and contacting employees to formalize how many days they would be expected to work from the office.
Union leaders say the result has been a patchwork quilt with some departments telling employees to return to the office several days a week while others are more flexible.
They say the wide range of policies is also resulting in some departments trying to poach the best and the brightest talent from other departments by offering more work from home flexibility and employees seeking transfers to departments more open to working from home.
Still others are considering leaving the federal public service, rather than return to government offices.
In online forums such as Canada’s Federal Public Service on Reddit, public servants have been comparing information about return-to-office plans. While a handful support the move, many are sharply critical of the plan to bring employees back into offices, the way it is being rolled out or who is being selected to return to the office.
In some cases, commenters reported being told to return to the office only to spend their time in video conference meetings.
“Commuting an hour a day to see no one I work with and communicate almost exclusively with (MS) Teams and email is utterly pointless,” wrote one.
“There’s the email from our ESDC DM — expected in the office at least some of the time,” wrote another. “Excuse me while I scream obscenities into the void.”
Some complained their department announced one plan – only to change it.
“We were asked to sign telework agreements, in which full time telework was one of the options,” said one commenter who said they worked at the Justice Department. “And now, suddenly, full time telework is off the table and it’s a two day in office minimum.”
Risk of contracting COVID-19 a concern for some
“They pretty much told us we wouldn’t be forced back if we didn’t want to,” responded one commenter who said they worked at Statistics Canada. “Now minimum two days starting Sept. 12.”
For others, the concern is the risk of catching COVID-19 from a co-worker or the working conditions in some government office.
Leaders such as Phillips say the comments on forums like Reddit are in line with what they are hearing from their members.
“You see all sorts of government employees comparing notes between what one department is doing and another department is doing and it’s creating mass confusion.”
A secret no more: Canada's 1st codebreaking unit comes out of the shadows – CBC.ca
For years, Sylvia Gellman’s loved ones were left in the dark about what she did for a living in the early 1940s.
But in a mansion that once sat along Laurier Avenue East, Gellman and her colleagues — many of whom were women — worked to assist a top secret mission: cracking codes and ciphers used in secret and diplomatic communications during the Second World War.
“No one outside knew what we were doing,” the 101-year-old told CBC Ottawa on Saturday.
“You were so aware of it being a secret mission. And you didn’t tell anybody. And I followed that very closely. I didn’t even tell my family.”
On Saturday morning, a plaque honouring the Examination Unit, Canada’s first cryptographic bureau, was unveiled at the Laurier House National Historic Site, next door to where Gellman once worked.
The house was also the residence of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister during the Second World War.
Gellman said while her loved ones knew she had a top-secret job, they hardly understood the breadth of her work. Those duties included typing out decoded Japanese messages before they were rushed to what was then called the Department of External Affairs.
Intelligence was also shared with the British government’s Bletchley Park, a centre of Allied code-breaking where names like Alan Turing walked the halls.
Having the unit’s contributions to Canada officially marked with a plaque was something of a pandemic project for Diana Pepall, who’s researched the bureau since 2014.
It’s no surprise that so few people know about the efforts of Gellman and her coworkers, Pepall said.
“When they left, they all got a memo saying, ‘Just because war is over and you’re no longer working here, you’re not allowed to talk about this for the rest of your life.'” she said. “I’ve seen the actual memo.”
One woman Pepall found during her research said that two years of her mother’s life had always been unaccounted for — until they were filled in by the researcher’s efforts.
“The mother was right there, and then gave a 20-minute speech that nobody had ever heard before on her work at the Examination Unit,” Pepall said.
Helped strengthen Canada’s independence
The unit’s success also marked an important milestone in Canada’s independence within the intelligence community.
In some ways, the Examination Unit grew into the Communications Security Establishment (CSE): the national cryptologic agency that provides the federal government with information technology security and foreign signals intelligence. Many employees went from one secretive organization to another, said Erik Waddell, who also works for CSE.
“The codebreaking work they did during the war proved, not only to our allies, but to Canadian government officials and ministers and the prime minister, that there was in fact a value in Canada having its own independent intelligence gathering ability,” he said.
“[It also proved] that it was worth preserving that capacity after the war.”
The work of Gellman and others, Waddell said, also “helped build, foster and maintain” partnerships with its allies, something that’s been crucial to the establishment of Five Eyes, a key intelligence-sharing alliance on today’s world stage.
For Gellman, the Examination Unit was more than just her place of work: it was a second home where she met two lifelong friends.
Having lost a brother in the war, Gellman said she understood her job’s importance and was proud to work at the cryptographic bureau.
“I felt the whole thing was amazing, what was going on,” she said. “I really did.”
Its a Jungle out there: Microscopic Threats abound
COVID-19 and its many variants, Monkeypox and several sexually transmitted diseases that have been with us for many decades looking for hosts. Yup, these viruses have been with us for a long time and infection rates are continually increasing. Protection from these invaders is legion and often have some familiarity with each other. HIV infections have increased globally by 23% since 2018. There seems to be a new Sexual Transmitted disease(STD) announced every few months. Viruses have regional pandemic control, but with the ease of travel the spread of threatening viruses continues and our health systems are often not ready for this spread. Our medical professionals are at their wits ends, burnt out and often migrating to a newer, less stressful profession, leaving us with staff shortages globally.
How to stay safe and healthy during this time? Well, don’t laugh folks. Really. Here goes.
1. Get your vaccinations for Covid-19 and Monkeypox(where available).
2. Masks are still a barrier between you and what can harm you in the air around you.
3. Know who you’re having intimate relations and contact. Meaning who you are getting close to, hugging, kissing and yes having sex with. Monkeypox passes onto others through contact with clothing, fabric items, intimate touching etc. Do you remember the old 6-9 feet rule(2-3 meters)? That will work. Monkeypox spreads through the contact period. Sexual contact too, even if you are using protection like a condom(good for you if you’re trying to ward off STDs). Know the activities of family members, and keep in mind that your family and communities overall health is dependent upon what we all do. If there is a person who goes to bars, sporting activities and the like, who gets into large groups of people where there is a chance of infection? I guess what I am trying to say is that a person who walks into a very dark alley late at night should not be surprised if a bad thing could happen to them. Victim shaming? No way. Being realistic and using commonsense to plan my activities. Take yourself away from places and persons who could possibly infect you.
4. Educate yourself, family and friends. Knowledge will help you stay away from the viral crouching tigers out there, waiting to pounce upon you. True medical professionals can and will help you, educate and direct you towards a healthy outcome. So-called fake news needs to be ignored.
These last two years have been difficult for sure. I know of 17 individuals who have died because of Covid-19, several people who have been struggling with various STDs for years, and no one who has been infected by Monkeypox. All the illnesses that surround us have one thing in common. The host allows them in, either through ignorance or mishap(unintentionally). So far my family and I have been safe from these viruses. Fingers crossed eh?
Folks, what do you tell your children when they need to cross the street? Look both ways before crossing. Good advice folks. Observe your surroundings and think carefully before you act.
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