Canadians discuss experiencing march in D.C.

The day after Donald Trump was officially sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, people across the world took to streets, in support of Americans protesting. Thousands of Canadians crafted signs and threw on their winter jackets to stand in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. Rallies were held across the country from the nation’s capital to Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal.

Some Canadians crossed the border Friday evening and Saturday morning to march alongside the estimated one million Americans, including Jen Jackson, a mother to two young daughters living in Chicago; Jennifer Kruidbos, a Montreal-based yoga instructor and Jay Baltz; an American-Canadian dual citizen living in Ottawa.

Why did you attend the Women’s March on Washington?

Jackson: I have two daughters. I decided to go because for better or for worse I have to raise these two girls in the States. I owe it to them to fight against all of this crap that’s going on even if I can’t in fact vote or be part of the political process in any real way as a Canadian in the States.

Baltz: To say that what Trump has been doing and what he is talking about doing should not be seen as normal and is not acceptable. He’s looking at turning back progress that’s been made over decades and decades specifically in the area of women’s rights and equal pay.

Kruidbos: I wanted to put some skin in the game. I wanted to experience some front-line activism. Since the election and what’s been happening in the States, I definitely had some visible emotions and I felt that going to this march would put the wind back in my sails and be inspiring. I have friends in the States and people that are more marginalized than me and actually are afraid in many ways. For me the election is really upsetting but I don’t feel like my life is really in danger so I wanted to stand beside people whose lives are.

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Jen Jackson (left) poses with fellow protestors in front of the Washington Monument.

What message do you hope your presence at the march sends?

Jackson: I hope it sends the message that we are not going to accept this as a new normal. I hope it sends a message that people who were not protesting or fighting in the past are willing to do so now and we are not going to back down.

Baltz: People are watching. Winning the electoral colleges does not give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants to do which seems to be his attitude. Not to mention to define the truth as whatever he sees as the truth. People will be keeping an eye on him.

Why did you think it was important to participate as a Canadian?

Jackson: This has gone beyond an American problem and become an international problem and I think Canadians are part of that need for international intervention. I also think that Canada itself is starting to swing back and forth in a polarized manner, to a much lesser degree. We had Harper to Trudeau, a swing. We could see that kind of swing to the far right as well. I think we are seeing evidence of that internationally, of these polarizing swings to the right.

Baltz: The U.S. has a huge effect on us being right next-door and our biggest trading partner and essentially contiguous in land everywhere so a lot of people move back and forth. There are a lot of Americans who live here. It’s easy to live in Canada where we haven’t faced that sort of thing to think it will never happen here. Looking at the current Conservative Party leadership, there are people who are running in that leadership who are saying exactly the same things that Donald Trump was saying. I think we also need to be careful here about making sure this doesn’t happen to us.

Did you have any fears for your safety?

Baltz: No, not all. There was very little police presence but those that we did talk to and see were universally friendly and happy that people were there. One of the police on the approach to the route we stopped and talked to was saying how different the atmosphere was in the women’s march than it had been the day before in the inauguration where he said everybody was angry. They had a lot of problems that day.

Kruidbos: I really didn’t, I believed it would be peaceful. A lot of friends were sending me messages, saying “Be careful, be careful.”

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Jennifer Kruidbos (left) travelled from Montreal to D.C. with friend Kimiko Fujimoto, an American living in Canada.

What moments from the march stood out?

Baltz: There were so many people that we were essentially trapped in place for a number of hours and then moved slowly up to the White House. Really, the moment was approaching it and just seeing how many people there were there. How many women, how many pink hats, how many people actually showed up for this. It was way over the estimate that anyone was making ahead of time. It was remarkable, what a gigantic sea of people. Then walking away from it, every intersection that you crossed in every direction you looked, it was packed, building-to-building, sidewalk-to-sidewalk, people.

Kruidbos: Janelle Monáe brought up six mothers of black youth who were killed by police in 2016. [She was singing] the song ‘Say Their Name’ and had the mothers actually yell out the names of their sons.

What did you write on your sign?

Kruidbos: I had one that said, “Equality First”.

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Protestors created a myriad of signs, many of which were placed in front of the White House after the Women’s March on Washington.

Now that the march is finished, what comes next?

Jackson: I think I’m going to follow the steps that Michael Moore laid out: we should call Congress every day and keep protesting. As an international community, we need to continue to keep protesting, keep the pressure on and keep track of the lies that are getting covered up in the States because the media is struggling against him [Trump].

Baltz: It was very nice being out there to end anger and project hope and talk about how everybody should march in solidarity. If this doesn’t result in four years of concerted effort and organization in the U.S. and in Americans living abroad as well, if it also doesn’t serve as an example that we can’t just sit here and hope it doesn’t happen to us, then it’s really not going to be all that useful. It’s great to go out and march and say we were in this big crowd and it was the biggest ever but everyone who is worried about this sort of thing needs to step up and make sure that they’re actively working to keep our values and our freedoms and our diversity intact.

Kruidbos: I had already started, right after the election, doing workshops called “Helping to Dissolve Racism”. I am going to look at the Trudeau government policy. I’ve been a bit immersed in American politics the last few months and need to actually take action to call regarding things that might be upsetting to me.

*Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

The Volunteer and the Frog

The first time we met I was taking a shower. It was around 6:30 a.m. and I was hoping the cold water would help me to stay cool and it did – for about 15 minutes.

I reached to shelf, popping up onto my tiptoes, grabbing a bottle of shower gel and there he (this is the pronoun I’ve given my pal) was, watching me intently. I was worried, of course, first thinking he was a poison dart frog and this was how it would end for me. I study human rights and journalism, I know very little about frogs. Thankfully, I finished my shower, unharmed, and forgot about the frog.

Over the course of the next month, my newfound friend leapt his way into my life. Jumping off the toilet paper roll, surprising me at 11 p.m., hanging out by the mirror to watch me as I brushed my teeth. The first few times, I was annoyed. He would pop out of seemingly nowhere suctioning on while I tried to go about my morning or catching me completely off guard at night. This guy needed to learn a few things about boundaries.

I thought back to the five-hour drive from Colombo to Hambantota, remembering the last minute tidbits I had been peppered with as we drove by tea plantations and bumped up and down the unpaved roads.

“Remember to close your bathroom window. We are tropical country – we have these things called rats.” That hadn’t exactly calmed my nerves as I forayed into an unknown space.

I considered the frog in front of me, planted on the mirror, right in the middle of my reflection.

“Well, you’re no rat so, this is good.”

After some research, and a tingling fear that he was a poison dart frog waiting for the right moment, I learned I’m in the company of a golden frog.

As I spent more time with the frog, I realized not only am I enjoying a new experience, I’m basically a Disney princess.

True, I don’t live in New Orleans in the 1920s nor am I trying to open a restaurant after years of hard work but I do seem to be stalked by a frog.

My reaction, every time. 

A few days later I bring up my amphibian friend to the Australian volunteers also working in the office. One of them nods in acknowledgement.

“I have about two in my bathroom.”

And with that, my Disney fairy tale comes to a close.

A dose of self-care

Self-care, a buzzword I’ve seen cropping up in articles from my favourite publications, was something I rarely thought about in terms of my own mental health.

A few weeks ago World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Sri Lanka’s volunteer support officer shared her self-care tools on Instagram. After reading the post I began thinking more about what self-care means and how it applies to me. Essentially, self-care is a personal way to check in on one’s emotional and physical well being.

A large part of the reason I decided to volunteer with WUSC was to challenge my perspective, my ideas and myself. While it has brought its obstacles, I am also grateful to be experiencing an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Dealing with culture shock, trying to handle the heat and living in a remote area have made me consider my mental wellness. At times, these three and other elements will pile on and cause me to feel stressed, tired or upset. However, understanding how these things impact me in a day has allowed me to become far more attuned to my mental health and what triggers a decline in my mood.

Living in the Southern Province in August means I’m constantly trying to handle the heat. Last night alone went up to 36 degrees. No air conditioning and dressing differently than I do at home on a hot day has made the heat one of my largest struggles. This week I spent three sleepless nights tossing and turning because I was too hot. The combined heat and my own exhaustion made me more prone to get upset over little things at work and at home. Once I can realize the heat and lack of sleep are my main problems, I can look at other things differently. More often than not, the things that had set me off rarely seem as bad as they were in the moment.

I currently have less than three weeks left in Hambantota and I’m beginning to think about the lessons I’ll bring back to Canada. During the school year, I often let stress get the best of me. During the end of a term, a study session gone array or a last minute assignment can send me over the edge. In hindsight I easily pinpoint the real problems: too much coffee, too little sleep, too many hours in the library, too much time staring at the screen. By living and working halfway around the world, I’ve been able to see the need to check in with my self in my usual comfort zone.

Mental health, I would argue, is still stigmatized. We have begun to talk about mental illness but it its important to recognize that mental health looks different for everyone. Like our bodies, we need to look after our minds. A few weeks ago, our volunteer support officer shared an updated version of a packing list for future WUSC Sri Lanka volunteers and she included a section on suggested self-care items. Before leaving mental well-being wasn’t something I had considered so I’m glad the next set of volunteers will have that in their minds as they embark on their mandates. As volunteers, our goal is to do our best work and we can’t do that if we aren’t properly looking after ourselves. But this isn’t unique to my time in Sri Lanka, this is something I will slowly introduce to my life in Canada, especially once I start my last year of university in September.

Interested in learning a little more about self-care? Here are a few things I’ve been using this month:

Podcasts: If I’m filing and uploading photos to the Chamber server, podcasts give my mind something else to focus on. If the heat is bad or I’m struggling to sleep, a podcast keeps me occupied without stimulating my eyes and mind from working on a laptop or scrolling through my phone. Canadaland’s Short Cuts keeps me updated on Canadian news through Jesse Brown’s media criticism and on a harder day I love listening to Sleepover because it reminds there are so many ways to face a problem.

Meditation: Meditation is something I’ve only recently introduced into my life. I love yoga but I used to dread the meditation portion of a class. After downloading the app Headspace on the recommendation of a fellow volunteer, my relationship to meditation is changing. Headspace guides you through a free starter pack of ten-minute sessions, helping you to focus on your breathing, the sounds of your environment and how your body is feeling. You can also set an alarm so you are reminded to meditate each day.

Reading: I love reading. Even before I was introduced to self-care, I always set aside time in my day to sit down and read. Personally, I prefer a hard copy book because I can get away from a screen, put my phone on silent and focus on the words on a page. While the genre never really matters, there are two books that have been a huge help to me during this trip. JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination reminds me I should take risks and challenge my normal. I’ll take any advice from Harry Potter’s maker. Marina Keegan combined her youthful voice with an extraordinary handle of prose in her posthumously published The Opposite of Loneliness. At 22, she died five days after her graduation from Yale. Her book is thought-provoking and offers an essay or short story for everyone. A big shout out to my two friends for gifting me these reads!

The Wave: Life After a Natural Disaster

*Before beginning to read this entry, please click on the audio above. I really think it will enhance your experience reading this particular post.

One of my favourite parts of living in Sri Lanka is the sound of the waves. The lull of the water pushing across and away from the sand offers me great comfort and always puts me at ease. My first night in Hambantota was spent in a hotel along the beach; I slept well despite my mixed nerves and excitement to begin my mandate.

Scientists have discussed how a close proximity to the sea promotes both relaxation and creativity, in my case, I certainly agree.

In Hambantota, villagers often discuss the rhythm of the sea; it is the District’s heartbeat. The size and sounds of the waves dictate a resident’s day. As they rock across the Indian Ocean, the waves bring important messages. What kind of conditions will fishermen face on their boats? Are the waves too high for a swim? Can we walk along the shore for a brief respite from the heat? The answers often lie in this rhythm.

But just like life’s rhythm, the rhythm of the sea is spontaneous and changes without a warning.

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The woman I live with was in Colombo when it happened, she tells me. It wiped out her cousin’s store and home. When the topic comes up in conversation, every Sri Lankan I’ve spoken with remembers exactly where they were on December 26, 2004.

Halfway around the world, I would have been nine, finishing up a snowy Christmas of opening presents and eating a turkey dinner with my family.  Nearly 12 years later, I find myself in one of most-impacted regions by the tsunami.

Sparked by an earthquake earlier that day, the tsunami’s interruption of Sri Lanka’s usual rhythm brought devastation. Houses were lost, businesses destroyed and families separated. To this day, there is an influx of orphans and the occasional story of families reuniting after over ten years of separation. This was country deep in the throws of a civil war both before and after the wave hit.

The impacts of the tsunami make themselves known in the infrastructure, the lack of it, across the District. There are buildings in construction or simply gaps from where a home, farm or shop used to live. There is also a section known as the tsunami apartments, small quarters for families who lost their homes but chose to continue living in Hambantota.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to Skype a cousin of the woman I’m living with. She and her family live in Toronto, relocating after their shop was destroyed by the tsunami. She asked me if I found the food too spicy, if I had tried her cousin’s famous tea and told me I could visit her in Toronto when I get back to Canada.

Every Monday and Thursday, I swim laps in a pool at the Peacock Hotel, it was recently rebuilt. When I first arrived, I saw pictures of the remnants of the hotel before the construction.

A few weeks ago I took a safari in Yala National Park. Covered in dust and sweating from the heat, most would not know Yala received the brunt of the tsunami’s devastation in the region. While many bodies were found, few belonged to the park’s animals. They had successfully fled hours before, sensing the impending wave.

I’ll continue my last three weeks as a communications advisor to the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce and Deep South Tourism. Yesterday the HDCC celebrated 23 years of service to the District. So much of that work was rooted in helping members reclaim their businesses in the immediate years after the tsunami.

A prominent Sri Lankan poet and author, Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe, worked with the HDCC to produce a book, unsurprisingly titled Rhythm of the Sea, that looks at personal stories of Hambantota residents. All proceeds from the book go back into the District’s economic development.

Living in the Southern Province amplifies the country’s survival and generosity despite the events of the past few decades. I do no understand what it is like to have lived through both a natural disaster and a civil conflict but each day I witness the impact.

Hambantota continues to support local businesses and other enterprises. In the aftermath of the tsunami, citizens of all religions and backgrounds helped each other despite the ongoing conflict. A few weeks before I arrived Buddhist monks gathered in a Catholic church to give out meals to Muslim residents breaking their fast at Ramadan’s end.

In many ways, the tsunami created a new rhythm that beats throughout the District. It is present each day as I witness a resilient community that remains hopeful, joyful and generous despite past hardships.

On the Edge of the Grid

About two weeks ago, I flew half way around the world and drove another five hours to my new home.

I’ll be spending the next month in Hambantota, a village in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province.

My new place of residence has elephants on the highways at night and eighty one per cent humidity. I use data on my phone as wifi and two swivelling fans in lieu of air condition.

I also live in a house with a woman who gave me her bedroom, her bed and her closet. After one night of staying with her she already knows how I take my coffee (black).

Hambantota is an hour away from Yala National Park, home to elephants, peacocks and a plethora of other animals; it was like driving though the Jungle Book. Hambantota is also home to bird sanctuaries, a blowhole and an hour away from turtle hatcheries.

As a volunteer for WUSC (World University Service of Canada) Sri Lanka I have been assigned as communications advisor to the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce and more specifically, Deep South Tourism. I’ll be working on branding through the website and creating promotional materials for an upcoming exhibition.

My current goal is to blog every Monday and Saturday but with the power outages, limited access to wifi and the occasional safari, we’ll see how it goes!