Balbulican

Honour Song

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540413_10151172203188453_2119725440_n.jpgI beg your indulgence for a personal story here.

Friday - tomorrow - marks the end of my wife’s three decades of work in the civil service. She is a remarkable woman, and had a remarkable career. It ended too soon, but that’s okay. She was closer to retirement than most of her colleagues who lost their jobs, we’re all right financially, and for five years her branch of the civil service was sliding rapidly from Purgatory to Hell. But I’d like to tell you just a bit about her life and career - to sing an Honour Song for her. No high drama or great significance, and of little interest to most. But Dawg’s Blog is where I sing these days. So if you’re here for depth, insight or a fight, move on. This is just me saluting the woman I love.

She was born on a reserve in Northern Ontario, the second of 13 children. Her dad was a trapper and a farmer, and her mom raised the kids. The reserve was big and the community was small in those days, and widely dispersed: she grew up in a log cabin without power, running water or plumbing. She never heard a word of English until she was taken away to residential school with her older sister at the age of five.

The nuns at her school were tough, and did what they could to discourage the “Indian kids” from speaking their language or practicing their culture. But she was never beaten (beyond the odd strap or slap) or sexually abused, and in her years at St. Joe’s she developed a lifelong passion for both science and reading, gifts for which she credits her teachers.

The best known stories from residential school are tales of sexual abuse. The damage done to my wife was more subtle than that. She missed several important years in the life of her family, and she lost much of her language. When she came home, she never quite fit in. To this day she and her older sister remain just slightly outside the family loop, connected but remote, like distant cousins instead of siblings.

After a stormy year of failing to reconnect with her parents, she took off to the nearest big city, married a cute guy from Trinidad, had a son, endured a year of violence and abuse from the cute guy, and left. She applied to McGill, but was told by an unusually frank counselor there that the odds of a “single Indian mom” being able to complete a Bachelor’s degree were too small to take a chance on. (This was in 1970.)

She moved out west with her child and worked for a couple of years for Aboriginal organizations, but found the politics and posturing too hard to take. So she went to work for the other side, the Federal government, where, ironically, she found she could do more to promote social and cultural development in the communities that she could with the organizations.

For seventeen years she worked across Canada - Yellowknife, Edmonton, Terrace BC, Winnipeg, and then Ottawa. She helped design several federal programs for community economic and social development, and she shut down a few that weren’t working. She developed a great national network and a scary reputation for integrity and toughness: I had heard about her before we met, and I was already intimidated. (I got over it.)

At the age of forty she made an unusual and very brave decision. At a time when some of her colleagues were just beginning to count down the years to their retirement, she decided to do what she had always wanted to do: quit the service altogether, go to university, and study science. That meant a year of learning math at the High School of Commerce three nights a week, and then full-time University studies, with kids half her age.

Her first year was dreadful. She barely passed most of her courses, and had to wrestle with the dark doubts we all deal with at one point or another - “maybe I really am NOT that smart. Maybe this is where I fail.” Then thanks to the Aboriginal Student’s Group at Ottawa U, she found a counselor who encouraged her to go for testing, and she learned about cognitive strategies, culture and learning styles. She adapted her study habits, and began to excel. She completed her Honors BSc, moved on to a Doctorate, then Post Doctoral research at McGill - the university that had refused her admission years before. She did them proud; her works on American Ginseng are still cited as the definitive phytochemical and ethnobotanical analyses of the plant, fifteen years after their publication.

For a few years she worked on projects that focused on promotion of the collection, study and recognition of Aboriginal knowledge, and the reconciliation of Western/Aboriginal approaches. She worked with healers and elders in the Kekchi villages of Belize, with the Cree in Northern Quebec, and across the American Midwest, linking western research with traditional plant use, looking for and finding the hard science behind the traditional usages.

Then she got a call from one of her old profs. He had been hired by the federal government to establish a unit of scientists to verify manufacturers’ claims about the safety and efficacy of their products. (I’m being circumspect here out of respect for the folks still working there.) He desperately needed a solid scientist with management skills, a background in policy development, and the smarts to navigate the bureaucracy. In short, he needed her. With some misgivings she agreed.

The first few years were wonderful - it was the culmination of everything she done to date. She created and headed a team whose job was to research, write and publish monographs on safety and efficacy, based on rigorous science. Her work resulted in the publication of more than 120 studies that quickly became a unique and internationally recognized resource, widely used by researchers, journalists and manufacturers around the world.

In 2006, shortly after the federal election, she was informed that her team was spending too much time on their scientific analyses. Her budget was cut, her staff was cut, and her unit’s targets were tripled. When she pointed out the impact this was going to have on the quality of their monographs, she was told to simply rely more on the manufacturers’ claims and less on research and testing.

For five years she fought to keep her unit’s standards and quality of science paramount in their work, while dealing with annual staff and budget cuts. Finally, last year, her entire unit was slashed from twelve to six, and everyone had to reapply for the remaining positions. After nine miserable months, she was told she had not been selected; the department was retaining the six youngest (and cheapest) staff, all young bureaucrats, none with so much as a BSc. The mandate of the unit, she was told, was being reframed to establish a more “collaborative” climate to “support market development” rather than “constrain” it.

Not an unusual story, not in Canada these days. But it’s an unfortunate end to a long life of hard work and honorable service.

There won’t be any gold watches - or even a goodby lunch. Her fellow forced retirees just want to get out; the survivors are all feeling guilty, and I suspect that, if not for the mortgages or the kids in school, most of them would be just as happy to leave. And of course, this little trauma is just a bubble in the maelstrom of a long, massive and exceptionally badly managed workforce reduction.

For us, it’s a happy ending. On Friday she leaves a demoralized, exhausted hellhole, walks away from the anger and the frustration, and starts to enjoy her garden, our granddaughter, and the summer. And in the fall…back to the projects she loves.

So kudos to you, my love. There is no honour in the government these days for those who did their best and did good things. But the folks who worked with you, and the communities you served, and the young people you helped in the early years of their career will never forget you. And there are still great things ahead.

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on July 25, 2013 7:00 AM.

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