City of Ottawa urging New Year’s Eve party-goers to beware of fentanyl

Originally aired on CBC Radio One on Dec. 30, 2016

Ottawa Public Health is urging party-goers to beware of fentanyl this New Year’s weekend.

The deadly drug is one hundred times more powerful than heroin, and has been found in other street drugs in Ottawa, including cocaine.

As I learned while reporting this story for CBC Ottawa, that warning is being echoed by others in the city.

Photo gallery

Click on the thumbnail to open a larger version of the image.

Language training as critical as ever for refugees

Asam Aldori narrows his eyes and knits his bushy brow.

He’s choosing his words carefully.

“This country protected me — helped me, saved me and my family,” he says in broken English. “That means I must know the culture and must connect with the people: do something for this country.”

Fifty years old, Aldori lives with his three children in a modest apartment in Ottawa’s Vanier neighbourhood.

It’s a world away from their native Baghdad: a city they had to flee in 2007, after al-Qaeda threatened to kill Aldori for his work with a prominent Iraqi politician.

The family escaped to the Syrian capital of Damascus. Four years later, war found them again.

When they arrived in Ottawa as government-assisted refugees in June 2015, the Aldoris faced a challenge shared by a growing number of refugees who call Canada home: learning the language.

According to analysis of data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 54 per cent of refugees who arrived in Canada in 2014 didn’t know either English or French. It was the first time since 2002 that more than half of refugees arriving in Canada weren’t familiar with either of the country’s official languages.

Though learning a new language can be a daunting challenge — especially later in life — it’s one Aldori is determined to overcome.

“Language is very important here. Because if I want to work, I must talk. If I go out shopping, I must talk,” he says.

“I don’t sit in my home and talk only Arabic. No,” he adds, shaking his head. “I go out and talk — with anyone.”

Speaking to the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights last May, federal Immigration Minister John McCallum said language training is a “top priority” when it comes to refugees.

It’s a priority that Emilie Coyle knows well.

“It’s paramount,” she says. “It’s the first thing you have work on — that and getting gainful employment.”

Coyle is the senior director of newcomer services with the YMCA-YWCA of the National Capital Region. Her team includes Ottawa’s Language Assessment and Referral Centre, which determines newcomers’ ability to read, write, speak, and listen in either English or French.

Coyle and her colleagues are seeing more and more refugees with little to no knowledge of English or French. Of all the Syrian refugees assessed by the centre since April, 84 per cent were found to be illiterate in their own language, never mind English or French.

That shouldn’t be surprising, she adds, because the government purposefully resettled the most vulnerable of refugees.

With so many refugees having received little in the way of formal schooling, Coyle says language schools are trying to develop new approaches to allow students to learn outside the classroom — and maybe even find work, too.

“It’s really unrealistic for us to think that they can be spending all this time sitting in a chair in a classroom,” she says. “Contrary to what some people believe, refugees are not here to live off the system.”

About one out of every 10 newcomers to Canada is a refugee, but refugees make up more than a quarter of all newcomers attending language courses paid by the federal government.

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (Facts and Figures 2014).

For now, Aldori is more than happy to be attending ESL courses five days a week, between 9 a.m. and noon from Monday to Friday. He started only two months after he first arrived, and he’s progressed two levels.

But it’s his children’s own progress that he is most proud of. None of his three kids spoke English when they came to Canada, but Aldori says two of them are already at the top of their class in school.

“It’s a good life and a safe life,” he says. “I and my family are very lucky.”

Originally from Baghdad, Asam Aldori and his three children arrived in Ottawa as refugees in June 2015. Aldori attends ESL courses five days a week to learn English.

Originally from Baghdad, Asam Aldori and his three children arrived in Ottawa as refugees in June 2015. Aldori attends ESL courses five days a week to learn English.

A nation divided

The Star Spangled Banner flaps in the wind in Ogdensburg, New York.

The American flag flies in Ogdensburg, New York the morning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

— W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming


I.
MICHELLE

Michelle and I are standing outside the bar, under the awning and away from the rain.

It’s dark out, and Michelle’s having a smoke. The parking lot’s full, but the streets are empty.

“I’m very scared,” she tells me. “I’m afraid to wake up in the morning and see what the end result is really going to be.”

Michelle Estes stands outside the Phoenix on the Bay restaurant in Ogdensburg, N.Y. on election night. Unlike the 80 or so Republicans she’s serving, she voted for Hillary Clinton.

Michelle Estes stands outside the Phoenix on the Bay restaurant in Ogdensburg, N.Y. on election night. Unlike the 80 or so Republicans she’s serving, she voted for Hillary Clinton.

Michelle, a white woman in her 40s, is the bartender here at the Phoenix on the Bay restaurant in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

Tonight, she’s serving drinks to around 80 Republicans. Most of them are men. All of them are white. Michelle may well be the only one in the place who voted for Hillary.

“I thought Hillary was going to run away with it. I really did,” she says, almost laughing to herself. What once seemed certain is now only fanciful.

‘This is a scary, scary time we’re living in.’

“This is a scary, scary time we’re living in,” Michelle says, as if talking to herself. “They believed in the beginning — when Trump started this — that he was just going to be out, you know? He wasn’t even going to get that far. And now look.”

Michelle takes another drag on her cigarette, and — for a moment — just stands there, still and silent, looking across the empty street.

Inside, the men are hollering and laughing, raising cans of Bud Light and Budweiser towards the ceiling, cheering their future president.

“I don’t know,” she keeps saying. “I’m shocked.”

Between the raindrops, I hear the low, haunting whistle of a train, rumbling in the distance.

Michelle takes a deep breath, and lets out a heavy sigh. “I don’t know.”


II.
JOHN

Inside the bar, John is slouched in his seat, alone at the table, his arms crossed over his belly.

He’s looking up at the TV on the wall a few feet away. Fox News is on, and we’re seeing a live shot from Trump headquarters. Sean Hannity is on the phone, so we’re told, but the noise in the bar drowns out the sound of his voice.

It’s 11:56 p.m. Trump has 259 electoral votes to Hillary’s 209. He’s now projected to win Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

“I feel very good,” John tells me. “The truth and justice thing was big with me,” he says.

John Williams watches election night results on Fox News at the Phoenix on the Bay restaurant in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

John Williams watches election night results on Fox News at the Phoenix on the Bay restaurant in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

John is a former correctional officer, and like many people around here, he wants police officers to be able to act more quickly “when they feel threatened.”

Ogdensburg is home to two state prisons. There are 55 correctional facilities in New York state. But crime rates have been falling, which means fewer people have been going to jail, which means trouble for Ogdensburg’s prisons. Five years ago, the state’s governor — a Democrat — consider closing both facilities, threatening to put hundreds of correctional officers out of work.

Trump’s win has put John at ease. “I’m very hopeful,” he tells me with a broad smile.

‘I think that we’re going to start to unify. The people have spoken.’

After an election that’s been so divisive, I ask him if he worries about where the country will go from here.

“I think that we’re going to start to unify. The people have spoken. The people are happy,” he says confidently.

It’s as though John is unaware of how deep a wound this election has left. “We have somebody who says he’s going to work for us and everything. If he can do what he says he wants to do — with re-building America, bringing jobs back, and doing some things — I think people will start getting along better.”


III.
CLARENCE

I’m driving through Watertown, looking for a place to stop, so I pull into the parking lot of a Taco Bell. That’s where I meet Clarence.

Clarence is a 30-year-old African American. After serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he now works five days a week at Taco Bell, earning minimum wage. He’s straddling his bicycle, wearing Lennon-style sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and a toque partially covering his short dreadlocks.

I ask him what’s most important to him in this election.

“Ah man, police brutality! Like, being an African-American in this country, you know? If I gotta worry about walking down the street and being safe, I can’t worry about what’s going on, the other stuff, know what I’m saying?” he tells me, as if I could truly understand what he means.

‘Trump scares me because he’s making it okay for people with power to be racist — overtly — you know what I’m saying?’

“I got a son — I got a little black son who’s going to grow up and be a black man one day. I don’t want him to grow up in a country where he has to fear the police,” he tells me. “I’m legit afraid of the police at this point. I won’t call the police for anything. Like, it shouldn’t be like that.”

So what does he think of a potential Trump presidency, I ask him.

“Trump scares me because he’s making it okay for people with power to be racist — overtly — you know what I’m saying? I’m not worried about that Klansman in North Carolina burning a cross because he’s stupid, because he just paid five dollars for gas, just to burn it up,” Clarence tells me, his voice rising.

“I’m worried about that guy in Congress, who can make a law that can affect me. So with Trump, if he gets elected, it’s just going to give carte blanche to those covert racist people to be overtly racist. And I’m not…” He pauses, shaking his head quickly with a smile. “I’m going to Canada. I live thirty miles away. I’m coming to see you, man!”


IV.
TIM

I meet Tim McCabe on the sidewalk in Potsdam. It’s a sleepy town on the banks of the Raquette River, at the foot of the Adirondacks, and it has its share of abandoned homes and boarded-up shops.

Tim was born and raised here. He’s now 46 years old. He’s wearing a large black tee-shirt with a camouflage-patterned Superman logo, baggy navy blue track pants, and a bright red baseball cap, emblazoned with this election’s most memorable slogan: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”

Tim tells me he considers himself lucky to be living so close to the border; he likes to go to Canada every now and again — to “have some fun.” But, he says, there’s no greater country than America.

“There’s other countries that have elections, but we’ve had it the longest, for the most part. Maybe not the longest, but,” he pauses abruptly, gathering his thoughts. “It’s nice that we can make a choice.”

Tim McCabe stands by the Trump flag he's spread across his SUV, parked just outside the office of the St. Lawrence County Democrats in Potsdam, N.Y. on election day.

Tim McCabe stands by the Trump flag he’s spread across his SUV, parked just outside the office of the St. Lawrence County Democrats in Potsdam, N.Y. on election day.

Tim’s made his choice in this election, and he’s making it clear to anyone who happens to pass by his Chevy Tahoe. A large, navy blue Trump flag hangs on the side facing the street, and the truck’s rear window is adorned with a neat row of Trump-branded bumper stickers.

“GOD BLESS AMERICA!”

“EXTREMELY CARELESS, EXTREMELY HILLARY”

“WE LOVE OUR POLICE OFFICERS!”

“COURAGE IS THE ABILITY TO ACT IN SPITE OF FEAR”

“IN TRUMP WE TRUST”

Tim’s truck is parked right in front of the campaign office of the St. Lawrence County Democrats. “Just to show that not everybody is for Hillary,” he tells me.

‘Liberals always say they’re tolerant. They want everybody to be tolerant and everything, but once you go against them, they’re the ones that are not tolerant.’

I ask him what he makes of an election that’s been so divisive.

“Oh, I have family members that are definitely not overly excited with me,” he says, almost forlorn. He hesitates, thinking over what he’s about to say, as if about to say it for the first time.

“See, like, I’ll post something on my Facebook, and I’m wrong. But they post something on their Facebook, and they’re right,” he tells me, perplexed. It’s as if he were looking to me for an explanation.

“Liberals always say they’re tolerant,” Tim says. “They want everybody to be tolerant and everything, but once you go against them, they’re the ones that are not tolerant. They’re the ones that are more aggressive.”

Tim tells me he drives a truck for a living. I picture him behind the wheel, 11 hours a day for days on end, alone with only a CB radio and an FM dial that he tunes to one talk radio station after the other.

I wonder what worries him most about where his country is headed, but I don’t have to ask.

“Why is it so wrong to say, ‘You’re not here legally?’” he asks me. “My family is from Italy, and I imagine I had a few uncles or cousins, maybe they got sent back.”

Of course, maybe they didn’t. Tim doesn’t know his family tree well enough to say for sure either way. But that doesn’t matter. “You can’t support a country of people that are living here who aren’t from here and (aren’t) contributing,” he says.

Suddenly, Tim adds something else. “My candidate is not the best man for the job,” he tells me. “But at the same time, I’m for him, because I think he really truly cares, you know?”


V.
MATT

Matt takes a drag of his smoke, holding a can of Bud Light in his left hand.

“This town’s going to shit,” he tells me, tilting his head upwards to push a cloud of smoke towards the sky. “We’re screwed either way, I guess, whoever gets voted in. That’s what everyone else says.”

Matt and I are standing outside Ray’s Place, a dive bar at the corner of two tired streets in Massena, N.Y.

The pavement is cracked, the sidewalks are crooked, and the shops nearby — a carpet shop, a massage parlour, and a hair salon — all have their curtains drawn.

The old General Motors plant is just up the street. Five hundred people used to work there until it closed in 2009. Now it’s an EPA Superfund site. Trucks have already hauled away tens of thousands of tons of scrap metal and hundreds of tons of hazardous waste, but the soil and ground water are still impregnated with toxic chemicals: PCBs, VOCs, mercury, and asbestos.

After the plant closed, people left; shops were boarded up; buildings sat empty. They’re still empty today.

There is only one streetlight in sight, about 40 feet away. Its dim yellow light doesn’t reach us, so we stand in the dark, outside the bar and its white brick walls.

Matt works as a maintenance worker for the town of Louisville. This time of year, he’ll be flushing the water hydrants, taking out the docks from the St. Lawrence, and cleaning up the area around the community center before the first snow falls.

He works 40 hours a week and gets paid $11 an hour, with no paid lunch.

“I grew up here. I plan on staying here,” he tells me. “I like it up here. I wish there were more jobs, obviously, but…” His voice trails off.

‘We’re screwed either way, I guess, whoever gets voted in. That’s what everyone else says.’

I want to know what he thinks of the election, so I ask who he plans to vote for.

“I don’t know,” he tells me. Matt doesn’t care much for politics. “I don’t know anything about Trump or Hillary. I have no idea, honestly. I don’t follow it,” he says. “I got my own shit to worry about.”

He pauses when I ask him what thinks of Hillary. “I don’t know,” he tells me again. “I heard she wants to take the Second Amendment away,” he says, almost quizzically. “That’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t vote for her, obviously.”

I wonder if that means he plans to vote for Trump.

“I think this country does need a businessman,” he answers. “I mean, look, he did well for himself. You know what I mean? I mean, he’s a multi-billionaire. He’s got to have some common sense, some smarts.”

Matt squints his eyes and takes another drag on his cigarette.

“I’ll probably vote for Trump,” he says, finally.

Page 1 of 111234510Last »