A writer’s role

(Sept. 2, 2011)

“May those with pens expose all the crimes to the world”

As one who has a pen, I have sought to use it—and my computer—to share stories of people who hunger, thirst and struggle for justice.

I don’t remember where I heard the prayer cited above, but it stays with me as an incitement to write and speak.

I grew up in the Okanagan valley of British Columbia, the western-most province of Canada. My parents grew up on farms northwest of Calgary, Alberta. Like the generations before, we moved around a lot. By the time we settled in British Columbia when I was ten, I had already lived in three other provinces.

Food—central to development debates—is perhaps what unites a family extended over time and space. Production, transportation and sales. My grandfather and an uncle were cowboys and ranchers in the Alberta foothills and in northern British Columbia. One aunt worked in the Burn’s meat-packing plant in Calgary. An uncle was a travelling salesman for Burn’s and another uncle was a salesman in the Safeway supermarket chain. My parents ran a small grocery store: that’s where I had my first job. My sister and her family raise Berkshire pigs in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.

At my grandmother’s dining room table, I remember arguments over something called the “Crow rate.” A subsidy to facilitate grain exports made shipping anything else prohibitively expensive, locking in a model of development that (arguably) protected Canadian sovereignty, grain farmers, Ontario manufacturers and the Canadian Pacific Railway for close to a century.

Beyond the mountains

I’m the kid who was endlessly curious about what was going on beyond the mountains. I wanted to understand the ideas that led people to do things in different ways. And I had found that I could write.

Visiting a batey near Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic (1983)

Eventually, I passed through the School of Journalism at Ottawa’s Carleton University. A few years later (in 1983), I found myself in the Dominican Republic and talking with people who made a sort of living from cutting sugar-cane.

I had gone to the “D.R.” to participate in a six-week exposure program for young adults sponsored by Youth Corps (a ministry of the Archdiocese of Toronto) and the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society (a Catholic religious order). The Dominican Republic Experience opened a door for me to the growing movements for social change in Latin America.

Over time, I will tell you more about what I learned from Haitian cane-cutters, and how their experience shaped the work I have done since then.

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