Brenda Berck

I learned from writer Carol Shields that she regularly read the obituaries in the newspapers because, she said, "Each obituary is a short story about the person who died". I remembered this statement the day I read an obituary in the Globe & Mail that both moved and shocked me.

Mary Manko Haskett, who had died at 98, was described as the last survivor of Canada's camps for First World War 'alien enemies', one of 5,000 Ukrainian Canadians and 3,500 Eastern Europeans who were interned. What particularly shocked me was that I had never before heard about this, even though I had grown up in an area of Winnipeg full of Ukrainians. I knew that the Canadian government had encouraged Ukrainian immigration with promises of free land. How had they become 'alien enemies' within 20 years of immigrating and why had I never learned about this

This article was prompted by my recognition that, no matter how many years have passed since I attended public school, I continue to feel that a new year begins on the day after Labour Day. Thankfully, I no longer have to shop for school supplies during the dog days of August, but each year, when I see the ads for these supplies, I remember the combination of excitement and dread of going into a new grade at school. Of course, I am not the only non-student to think about schooling at this time of year. The Dominion Institute is concerned that a recent survey reveals that only half of Canadians can name our first Prime Minister, and only 16% can name the Fathers of Confederation.

I can understand the Institute's concern; I can also remember how mind-numbing it was to memorize lists of names of apparently important people. I have a feeling that learning how the history of my family, friends and neighbours fits into the history of this country would make it easier to learn our history and to remember Sir John A. Macdonald (our first Prime Minister) for more than his drinking habits.

More than what's taught, I am preoccupied by a value that I never hear discussed but which indicates to me a key difference between Canada and some other countries: the value we attach to education. In Canada, we assume that everyone is entitled to an education. All children from kindergarten through secondary school are therefore provided that education: paid for through our taxes. (Whether parents accept public schooling for their children-or pay for alternatives-is up to them.) Until recently, I assumed that, in the African countries that had formerly been part of the British Empire, families paid school fees because that was the British pattern. I couldn't understand why they followed that model since it seems self-evident that education of their children is an essential tool for escaping poverty and many families can't afford the fees.

A class in Kenya - Only recently have countries in Africa able to provide free elementary school education. In most places families of high school students still must pay fees.

The scales have dropped from my eyes, thanks to my reading more widely about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank is an institution that channels funds, in the form of loans, from richer countries to the developing world. It also dispenses advice on how borrowing countries should manage their economies, and sometimes it ties the loan to the borrower's willingness to follow that advice.

The impact of the Bank's commitment to market-oriented policies, including deregulation of the economy, often left a country's government without the necessary resources to cover costs, coupled with a pressure to privatize. So education, along with access to clean water and health care-all things Canadians assume as rights-had to be paid for! The moral questions that arise from this quandary are many: a lifeline is extended with one hand but with the other, there is a push towards further enslavement in poverty.

There have been changes in some countries in the matter of education. Until the late 1990s, donor policy considered fees as a means of 'cost-sharing', 'community involvement' and 'parent responsibility'. Since 2000, as donors became increasingly aware of communities' resentment over paying school/uniform/supply fees (which they regarded as a tax), donors have become more willing to enable free primary school education and school fees have now been abolished in some countries.

As part of my further education, I have also discovered some local rays of hope, things that I, and others, can do. Grandmothers and grandmother wannabes can join retired Archdeacon Barbara Clay and many others within The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign (a program of the Stephen Lewis Foundation) who raise funds for school fees and supplies as well as for food and income-generating projects, raise awareness, and advocate for Canada to distribute the generic drugs it has promised. A local 'umbrella' group is the Greater Van Gogos ('gogo' is Zulu for 'grandmother'), which can be contacted at g-vangogos @ Information on how to become involved with the Foundation in some other way is at:

I'm not ready to adopt the role of grandmother, but I am willing to learn more about Canada's promise to distribute generic drugs and to send emails to the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament urging that Canada fulfill its undertaking.

And I will continue to read obituaries as part of my lifelong learning of Canada's history and peoples.