Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for April, 2009

The Advance of the Aylwards

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

April 26, 2009

“After the three of us got the scholarships, I think Mom and Dad adored going out to parties,”says Erin Aylward, “because they were always being asked, ‘So what did you guys do?’”

Good question. Geoff and Elaine Aylward live in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, a suburb of St. John’s. All three of their children Stephen, 21, Erin, 20,and Meaghan, 19 have won merit scholarships from the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Erin and Meaghan both attend Memorial University. Stephen is at McGill University in Montreal. What accounts for such success?

“We’ve been really really blessed in our parents, and our grandparents,” says Erin. “Speaking for myself, I’ve been surrounded by unconditional love and support my whole life, and it’s been a major factor in my gaining confidence and taking initiatives.”

Meaghan agrees and adds a further ingredient.

“Between the three of us there was always a lot of support for all of our different projects,” she says. “If Stephen was having a bottle drive, for instance, then Erin and I would both go.”

All three feel fortunate to have done French immersion, and then the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Holy Heart of Mary High School. Newfoundland’s largest high school, Holy Heart is one of the few that offers English as a Second Language, which gives it an unusually diverse student body. The school is a power in sports as well as academics Erin is a rugby player and its chamber choir, which won an international gold medal in Vienna some years ago, regularly competes and tours overseas.

Holy Heart has a long-standing Social Justice Committee, which all three Aylwards chaired in their senior years. Steve Aylward was also devoted to the school’s Amnesty group, a commitment suggested by his grandfather, a retired judge.

“I remember watching the evening news one time with my grandfather at about 13 or 14, and I was just horrified by a shot of some tanks rolling into a city somewhere,” Steve says. “I asked my grandfather what could be done to prevent all the suffering in the world, and he suggested that I look into Amnesty International.

“So I became quite involved with Amnesty in St. John’s, and then later here in Montreal and in Germany, in Freiburg, where I was on exchange last year. I went to Mexico in 2007 as a youth delegate for Amnesty International Canada, and I’m going to to Ottawa in two weeks for a meeting of the international strategy committee.”

Meghan works with Oxfam and with the World Health Organization’s program to eradicate polio an effort headed by her uncle, who operates out of Switzerland. Erin almost accidentally took a course in Spanish at Holy Heart, and fell in love with the language. She has visited Argentina, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and is deeply involved with a campaign to inject more awareness of global issues into Newfoundland’s school system.

So what did Geoff and Elaine Aylward actually do?

Two things, say their children. First, unconditional love. Second, the Aylwards always portrayed post-secondary education. as “a stepping-stone to all kinds of opportunities,” as Elaine puts it. They had created Registered Educational Savings Plans for all the children, and Elaine spent a lot of time researching scholarships.

“I think that’s part of that unconditional support,” says Meaghan, “because looking for scholarships online is really daunting, and even when I looked at the Millennium application, I thought, ‘Uhh, I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.’ And having Mom there to say, ‘Nope, you are’ was a huge factor for us.”

Elaine is amused at the memory, but she says she was already looking farther ahead, “trying to line up as many resources as possible to fund not just the undergrad program, but whatever might lie beyond that in terms of a master’s degree or a doctoral program.”

Erin is doing political science and Spanish, Meaghan political science and psychology and Stephen is just finishing his degree in political science and philosophy. So what does lie beyond, for him?

“I’m going to study law at Oxford next year,” he says. “I was selected as the Rhodes Scholar for Newfoundland for 2008-2009.”

And no one, I’m sure, was surprised.

– 30 —

The Three Principles of Sustainability

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

April 19, 2009

“Yis, yis, yis,” nodded the Irishman, as he watched the complicated machine clattering away. “I see it works in practice — but does it work in theory?”

For now, our economy works in practice — but it doesn’t work in theory, because it is not sustainable. A sustainable society provides “Enough For All, Forever,” to quote the most succinct definition I’ve heard. To reach sustainability, we have to learn three principles that fundamentally challenge the way we’ve always done things.

First principle: it isn’t counted, it doesn’t count. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

If you’re on a diet, you weigh yourself. If you’re cooking a roast, you monitor its temperature. If you’re seeking fuel economy, you measure your gas mileage. But we don’t calculate the costs of smokestack emissions and greenhouse gasses, and incorporate them in the price of the products. We don’t measure food miles — the distance that our food travels to reach us. If we factored the environmental costs of shipping into the price of the food, local farmers would be fully competitive with agribusinesses in California or Chile. We don’t tot up the value of volunteer work, or of household work. We don’t measure what we’ve lost when a forest is clear-cut — the aesthetic loss, the soil erosion, the stream turbidity, the loss of habitat, the forest’s ability to capture carbon.

All of that literally counts for nothing. And because we don’t measure properly, we can’t calculate our losses. So we act as though there were no losses, which means we are living in an imaginary world.

We do calculate the Gross Domestic Product, and our politicians unfailingly use it as a measure of progress. Alas, the GDP doesn’t measure progress; it merely measures activity. As the great economist Kenneth Boulding noted, it only tells us that people are busy. Using the GDP for policy purposes is stupid and damaging

Second principle: Ownership is an illusion.

The caribou doesn’t own the land that it occupies. The monkey doesn’t own the jungle. And we don’t own the land or its resources either. We just get to use them for a painfully short time.

That’s the view taken by traditional cultures. The land was, literally, common property, belonging to everyone and no one. That’s the aboriginal view, and the Highland view. “A man with two cows,” says the Gaelic proverb, “is a man with too much.” Use what you need, and no more. And don’t own what you don’t need.

In many cases we want the services that a product can provide rather than the product itself. I want convenient, affordable transportation, but that doesn’t mean I need to own a car. If Ford rented me a car and had to cover all its maintenance and recycle it when I was done with it, Ford would be motivated to make it inexpensive and durable. Thomas Edison originally sold electric illumination rather than electricity, so he was motivated to produce electricity cheaply and efficiently. When he switched over to selling electricity rather than light, he was motivated to encourage waste and inefficiency, which increased electricity sales.

We need services, not things. We need to be sheltered, fed, transported, equipped for work. The idea of ownership — on which our economic system is based — is saturated with incentives to waste.

Third principle: If it is to be, it is up to me.

Our whole economic system is designed to convert resources into waste, with a brief interlude as consumer products. Do not expect companies that sell steel, oil or lumber to develop a sudden enthusiasm for conserving resources. Do not expect Wal-Mart to express great misgivings about the economic system which has served it so well. These companies will change — and are changing now — but only because you and I are changing.

Whenever I speak to industry groups, I hear the same thing in my briefing sessions. “We have to go green because we’re under pressure on all sides from our customers, our employees, our shareholders.” That’s us, folks. In our roles as voters, citizens, consumers and advocates, we’re forcing the changes.

These three principles may not take us all the way to sustainability, but they are steadily taking us closer. Your efforts may never be counted — but never believe they don’t count.

– 30 —

Easter Sunday….

Monday, April 13th, 2009

…. is the only Sunday of the year that the Herald doesn’t publish — so there’s no column this week. Back next week!

A Summer in Nepal

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

April 5, 2009

Colin Macdonald’s trip to Kathmandu started with a conversation at a breakfast table in Montreal. His friend Mishuka Adikary was contemplating volunteer service in Nepal with an organization called Volunteer Abroad. Colin didn’t know where Nepal was, but he was captivated by the idea.

Colin and Mishuka — “Mish,” as she’s known — are Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation “laureates,” whose scholarships are based on leadership and community service as well as grades. The two had become chapter co-ordinators, organizing events for the laureates in their regions and participating in national conferences and workshops.

Among the features of the merit scholarships is a $2500 Millennium Project Grant designed to support laureates doing summer work with Canadian non-profit organizations. Mish had been awarded one, and in January, 2007, at a co-ordinators’ meeting in Montreal, she mentioned the Nepal idea to her friend Natalie Poole, from Saskatchewan. Natalie instantly offered to go along, as did four other students at the table. Two were from Prince Edward Island, Mary Ann McSwain and Colin Macdonald.

The group grew to eleven students, from all across Canada. Mish set up a Facebook page so that everyone could participate equally in the planning. When they presented themselves to Volunteer Abroad, the organization looked for a project that could utilize the whole group. It chose the Grace Home/St. Grace School, a non-profit organization in Kathmandu which gives a home and provides an education to vulnerable and orphaned children. It also takes in disabled and destitute elders, who can learn skills and help with child care in return for food and lodging.

During a five-week stay, what can eleven Canadian students do for an orphanage in Kathmandu? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

“It’s an orphanage and a school for about fourteen children who live there, and an additional six to ten from low income families who just attend school there,” Colin explains, sitting in a coffee shop in Halifax, where he now studies education at Mount St. Vincent University. The Grace Home, he says, was little more than “four brick walls and half a roof, almost like a compound, and the ground was covered in broken bricks.

“We lifted up all those broken bricks and laid new bricks, and painted all the walls. We added a classroom with a roof which provided a place where the children could distinguish home life from school life. Before we did this, the children were being taught in their bedrooms, because there just wasn’t anywhere else.”

The Canadian students built playground equipment — swings and slides — and redecorated all the bedrooms. Because the school’s water supply produced rusty water, the Grace Home had been forced to buy expensive drinking water. The students passed the hat among themselves, raised a little money, and erected a small water tower with a proper filtration system. They also started a composting system and a small organic garden in the school yard.

Nepali tradesmen don’t normally work much during the rainy season — but the Canadians only had a few weeks, so they stretched tarps over the work sites and kept on working, which made a real impact on the neighbours. Before the project, says Mish, local people hadn’t paid much attention to the orphanage — “but now, here were all these volunteers working in the rain to help these kids,” which greatly raised the profile of the orphanage within its own community.

“I was interested in education, but I wasn’t sure if it was really for me,” Colin says. “Well, while we were there, I was able to teach throughout the mornings at the school. I have a theatre background, so I got the children learning English through theatre. We did health and medical checkups, nutrition, health and hygiene how to wash your hands, how to brush your teeth, things like that.” They also enlisted local doctors, and started a proper system of medical records.

Colin believes that the Nepali kids got a lot out of the project — “but I got a lot more out of it. And there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about the school, and the children, and that amazing country.”