Speech to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta for the 2014 Annual General Meeting
By Laine Burlingham, member of NU Calgary 4 cohort and Dispute Resolution Officer with the Health Sciences Association of Alberta
I’m here to talk to you about Next Up! To do this I’m going to tell you my story, because I think it will really convey the impact of Next Up, if I share a little context. It has literally changed the trajectory of my life.
I am a third generation Canadian. My Father was born in Allan, SK. His roots are English (surprise, surprise with a name like Burlingham), but also Hungarian, perhaps German, Irish and a little Pennsylvanian Dutch – which is really ‘American’. Not to mention somewhere I believe some Native American. My Mother was born in Beaver lodge, AB – her mother French Canadian – from Trois Riviere – and her Father Italian, his parents coming to Canada between the first and second world wars where they settled in Drumheller. And so I truly am a Canadian mutt. A little bit of everything. But my parents divorced when I was 5 and I grew up with my mother for the most part. Because of this I identify more strongly with the French and Italian roots. I bring this to your attention because French and Italian ethnicities, while romantic are often characterized in less than positive ways in western Canada.
So, I grew up with my mother, and my brother – struggling through most of my childhood. My mother is what I would call a true Albertan. She has always worked incredibly hard. She was never on welfare through the 80s & 90s – although she probably might have been better off, or at had it least easier – because she didn’t want to be labelled, she didn’t want people to think less of her. Through school we moved a lot – my mother constantly trying to improve our lives, and she did – through sheer will and determination.
The longest period of time I had consistent friends was during late elementary and junior high – where I went to school in Castle Downs and Rosslyn. These are very multicultural areas of Edmonton – and my brother and I were in the minority as white people. While I certainly feel this has added to my personal experience and value it greatly, it was an unusual situation for a white person to be in, in Alberta. I hit puberty – got a little crazy and my mother shipped me off to my father – who was now living in Vernon BC. Surprise to her I stayed there, for a while. I remember my first gym class in high school – they did boot camp in Vernon for the first week of school – running kilometers in 30+ degrees. I took off my shirt and only had my sports bra on – only to be told that I had to put my shirt on because it was distracting the boys. The boys weren’t even wearing shirts! I remember writing a paper later that year about the discrimination and injustice, the unequal treatment – this was around the time of the supreme court of Canada case where a lady was gardening shirtless – and she won, because to treat her otherwise – where a man can be shirtless – was discrimination and against our charter of rights and freedoms. In any case – you can see from this, I found the right line of work as a labour relations officer for a union.
Throughout my childhood I frequently felt isolated by poverty, difference and discrimination – through my life I have found that I have been looking to find a way out of my challenges – and that has often been through moving. And so – up to this past fall – I have been planning to move to BC with my partner. I’ve actually been trying to find ways to move to BC pretty much since I started with HSAA. I’ve lived most of my life in Alberta and during almost all of that time I have felt oppressed by the conservatism that is so prevalent here. I did my degree and the U of C – which is very well known for its conservative leanings, I worked in Banking in downtown Calgary – you can’t get much more conservative. When I took my job and moved to Edmonton, I thought – maybe I’ll find my people, a community there, but I didn’t. I found many people stuck in old ways of living, and I wasn’t quite ready to figure out what a new way was for me. I didn’t know how.
Then I went to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and fell in love with a way of life that I experienced that was conscious about the community – I was staying on Commercial Drive, in east Vancouver. I felt the guilt of the privilege I was granted because of my position in life. I had all the symbols of success – great job, luxurious car, a home, a dog – and I was taking a job, while I had one, from someone there who needed it a lot more than me. I fell in love with an attitude about nature and quality of life – that was more than working to live, that was more than surviving and surviving just for myself.
I came back to Alberta and a workplace that had been in constant upheaval for several years – because of all the government legislation that was ill thought of and forced upon its people. I came back to work disillusioned and exhausted. Don’t get me wrong – my job is incredible. I started this work not having a clue what I was getting into – but I loved it. It was a dream come true. There is diversity, I work with incredible people, I do work with the law and rights, I get paid to argue, and I help people – which is really my foundation for doing this work. But it was sucking the life out of me. This is something I’ve needed to learn a great deal about over the last several years – how to preserve my soul, how to care for myself – in the face of my desire to help people and how to deal with the baggage of my history.
And I have learnt, and I have had support – of the people I work with, my family, of friends, and of my partner, Sheldon – who is the love of my life. But, I still hadn’t really found my place and I still felt that there was more and that I wanted more. I want to not just make an impact on your day to day working lives – but I want and need community. I need hope, I need to belong somewhere and I have never truly felt this living in Alberta.
I am what you would call a bit of a free spirit. I believe in live and let live, and I believe that we all work to live the best lives we can. I am inherently, sometimes painfully, optimistic, I believe we should have choice, but I also believe in the value of community, of the collective. I want to see people, organizations and our world flourish – and I have felt incredibly saddened living here in Alberta.
We live in one of the most beautiful, prosperous places on this planet – and I feel the weight of the guilt of the damage we are collectively doing. I am incredibly frustrated by the selfishness that seems to motivate the plundering, of the apathy of people because of a fear of hypocrisy, of change, of questioning. And I fear for us all – because climate change and growing inequality is real and we are all a part of it. I feel the frustration and oppression of our provincial history, of the conservatism that doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not just about ideology any more – we have to change for survival. This may seem surprisingly apocalyptic to you – but this is how I feel, this is what I’ve learnt. This is how I felt before Next UP.
Let’s be clear here – even on my application for the program, I wrote that my dream would be to be living on Vancouver Island – I had given up on Alberta, my home for what has been most of my life. That was last fall, my partner and I had planned to move this spring. Which is over now and I have just moved to a tiny community called Water Valley – so you can see something has changed. Because of the ongoing environmental catastrophes (even in land locked Calgary we’ve had the devastation of flooding) my partner and I decided to reconsider moving – we are concerned about the rising sea level, radiation from Japan, about isolation of being on an island – because we’d be moving away from our friends and family, we’d be moving away from the opportunity and prosperity that is here in Alberta. We’d be moving somewhere that we didn’t really know anyone. And so we reconsidered.
Through the program I learnt that there are amazing people here in Alberta, who are chomping at the bit to find ways to improve our lives. I learnt I am incredibly passionate about issues that have impacted my. But the greatest gift I have received – is awareness and a feeling of hope, of possibility. Not only do I think I have and we have to change – but I also that we can and at least some of us are ready for that challenge. I have had the gift of engaging in a community that I didn’t know was here, to feel valued for what I bring, and to learn and be supported by others who have similar concerns and hopes.
Next up is a program that brings together youth (and yes I’m at the top end of “youth” of 18-32) to learn about issues, skills and connect them with resources to really make a difference in the communities around them. It is a leadership program for social and environmental justice. It is not affiliated with any political party, but definitely is what we would call “progressive”. Through this program I have found community – a community of people across this province that are working to bring positive, hopeful and courageous ideas and efforts to Albertans. The program is national, it is also run in Vancouver, Saskatoon, Ottawa, starting next year in Winnipeg and of course, here in AB in Edmonton and Calgary. Besides the annual program – there are week long workshops that are available, we have an alumni network, advisory council and tons of connections to diverse social and environmental organizations – such as Parkland, PIA, LeadNow, Elder Core and numerous others.. Basically this program breeds activists – but not in just one sense. I already knew I was an activist – it’s what I do – but now I have more. I have access and support and just more.
I believe that rather than the feelings of guilt, of fear, of isolation, of apathy – we as Albertans have a gift, an incredible gift – of prosperity of resources, of the beauty around us, of a depth of character to persevere, and most of all of heart. I feel this is a responsibility that we need to try to live up to. But more importantly – I now know, I can, I can do it here. And so, my partner and I bought a home in Water Valley and we’ve decided to stay. I’ve decided to invest my passion in this community, in Alberta.
So I invite you to learn more about next up – to share this with your friends, your family, and your coworkers. HSAA helps fund this – and so I hope you feel you’re already a part of Next Up but please consider donating to the group yourself, consider sharing this with people around you. I’ve shared my story and I hope by hearing you understand that it will be worth it. I also invite you to learn more about about PIA, about parkland about your union – to expand your horizon of possibility by engaging. I invite you to ask questions, to learn, to get incensed with what you see is wrong with your community and rather than trying to ignore or escape it – let’s do something about it. Because together, we can make Alberta not just a place of beauty, resources and prosperity that is seen negatively – but we can lead by sharing this privilege, this wealth, this place that we all call home.