Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for July, 2009

A High School in Quebec

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

JULY 12, 2009

It feels like Hollywood: the presenter at the mike, the announcements, the spotlight on the recipients as they make their ways to the stage while the audience hoots and claps.

But this is the auditorium at a high school called Polyvalente La Samare in Plessisville, Quebec. And this is an awards night. The trim, youthful man on the stage is Stéphane LeBlanc of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, who is presenting Millennium Excellence Awards to Sophie Boutin, Cloé Marcoux and Mathieu Samson. These awards recognize not only academic achievement, but also citizenship and leadership.

Stéphane now reveals that over the past decade, this rural school has produced more than 50 Excellence Award laureates more than any other public high school in Canada. Indeed the only school of any kind to win more awards is Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, an exclusive private school in Victoria. La Samare has captured as many as eight Millennium Awards in a single year.

What is its secret?

An intense relationship with the whole community, says Danielle Béliveau, La Samare’s directrice, or principal. Plessisville is a small town of about 9000 people, “so the school becomes the centre of the community,” constantly humming with non-credit courses, meetings of clubs and associations, festivals, fundraisers. The school operates from early morning till late at night, seven days a week, and that very fact draws people in. The janitor, for example, seeing the students and teachers working on projects together late into the evening, was moved to volunteer. He now coaches the basketball team.

La Samare’s philosophy, says Mme. Béliveau, is that it’s everything outside the classroom that makes students love school, so the school provides a huge spectrum of extra-curricular activities. That’s where students learn the skills of citizenship and leadership and that’s why La Samare has a drop-out rate of 5% to 6%, as opposed to the typical rate of of about 25%.

With just over 1000 students, La Samare is the perfect size, says guidance counsellor Patricia Bourque large enough to offer any activity, but small enough that people know one another very personally. Because roughly 80% of the teachers were also students here as were the local doctors, lawyers and business people, as was Patricia herself they fully grasp the tradition of community involvement. And they know its effect on the students.

“When I first came to an awards ceremony at La Samare,” says Stéphane LeBlanc, “I noticed that parents, grandparents, siblings and community mentors and volunteers all participated. All the students mentioned the immense support they received from their parents, teachers and guidance counsellors.

“Actually, I had already seen that support. Back at the beginning of the program, I used to get phone calls from a teacher here named Majella Lemieux. He’d have questions about the criteria, and about the application form. We’d talk, and he’d thank me very politely and then these great applications started to come in from Plessisville.”

Majella Lemieux is a slight, intense, good-humoured man, now retired. For him, the essence of a teacher’s calling is to know the students profoundly, not just as “students,” but as unique individuals with passions and problems and to support them fiercely.

“Kids can do marvellous things, but you have to push them,” he says. “And if you push them, you have to support them, you have to be there. Many student organizations meet after school, and I liked to be ready for the next day, so I didn’t leave until 5:00 or 5:30. They were just down the corridor, so I’d look in on them, see how they were doing, help them if they needed it.

“And if you’re there, and they have personal problems or whatever, they come to talk to you. And that’s when you get them! After that you can work with them.”

And that’s where the scholarships come from, says Patricia Bourque. Students think they aren’t special but a teacher urging them to fill out an application makes them reflect on what they’ve actually done, and teaches them how to present themselves. If the school has given them opportunities to flower, the application will reveal that.

The students will appear to be special. And that’s because they are.

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Author note: Silver Donald Cameron is writing a book on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Next week he reports on a remarkable youth organization in Plessisville which complements the work of La Samare.

Living to see the day…

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

JULY 5, 2009

“Mr. Premier,” I said.

I have not spoken two words with such relish since Marjorie and I said “I do” at our wedding. Darrell Dexter had been Nova Scotia’s 27th Premier for about an hour. In the cavernous Cunard Centre, I had lined up with dozens of others to congratulate him.

“Mr. Premier,” I said, “I just want to thank you for finally bringing this wonderful party to government.”

“Thank you very much,” said the grinning Premier. Then he said, as he tends to do at such moments, “but you know, I stand on the shoulders of all those people who went before me, and who put so much effort into making this possible.”

“Of course,” I said. “Nevertheless, you’re the person who finally carried the ball across the goal line.”

As the Premier said, the 2009 election was indeed the culmination of decades of effort by thousands of Nova Scotians, and many were in the hall. I had just met a retired coal miner from Glace Bay who remembered all the towering figures of Cape Breton politics J.B. MacLachlan, Clarie Gillis, Father Andy Hogan, Mickey MacDonald. He was 90 years old. “I never thought I’d live to see this day,” he said. That was the evening’s mantra.

I also saw Shirley Macnamara and Clair Rankin. Shirley ran several times for the NDP in Richmond County back in the 1970s, when I was president of the local NDP association and also a member of the party’s provincial council. I had recruited Clair to the NDP, and he had run three times in Richmond, including this time. We shook hands and hugged. We never thought we’d live to see this day.

Going into the election, I had not dared to hope for an NDP majority. I would have been delighted with a slender minority. I had lived through too many heart-breaking elections 1978, 1988, 1999 to have very high expectations. And that lack of expectation is a key to the character of the party.

Most New Democrats joined a party that they believed in, but that had no hope of forming a government. Those members often embraced ideas that were fringe concerns at the time, but contained the seeds of the future feminism, environmentalism, civil libertarianism, the eradication of racism and so on. The party was not a communion of saints indeed, it was often quite fractious but its members preferred a party obsessed by principles to parties obsessed by power. Its candidates ran, often repeatedly, without any expectation of winning, much less of forming a government. (They never thought they’d live to see the day.)

But as Marilla Stephenson noted in one of the most perceptive comments of the recent campaign when the NDP does capture a seat, it rarely surrenders it. Typically, the first victory is a squeaker, and then the vote totals just pile up. Look at Agriculture Minister John MacDonell, who won Hants East in 1998 by 798 votes, and retained it four times by steadily increasing margins. This year he won by 4542, capturing 65% of the vote.

The result of many such victories is a strong caucus. Premier Dexter could easily find another good Cabinet among the members he omitted members like Leonard Preyra, Michele Raymond, Howard Epstein, Pam Birdsall. Indeed, one of the Premier’s major challenges will be to make productive use of all the talent on his backbenches.

As with the seats, I suspect, so with the province. I have been a New Democrat for decades because I really think that the NDP’s vision and values closely match those of Nova Scotians. New Democrats deeply believe that society is as much about co-operation and mutual aid as it is about competition. So do Nova Scotians, who think it’s natural to respond to a house fire, an exotic illness or a breadwinner’s death by holding a benefit at the fire hall to raise money for the afflicted. The NDP commitment to medicare, pensions, unemployment insurance, various supports for families and communities what is that, if not a political expression of the tradition of mutual support that we see in communities all over the province?

The first NDP government in Atlantic Canada. At last. And truly, it’s just the beginning.

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