“Just because you’re unemployed, it doesn’t mean that you’re out of work” – Dr. Daniel Mullin

I was watching an episode of The Simpsons recently where Homer ends up becoming chief of police after Chief Wiggum is forced from office following a public scandal. During the episode Homer says “You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs… boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, baby-proofer, trucker, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carny, mayor, grifter, bodyguard for the mayor, country western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochie, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe and missionary. But protecting Springfield, that gives me the best feeling of all”.

It made me think of the employment struggles that so many of people I know are currently going through, myself included. While I know that there are many factors in the employment troubles I and my friends have been experiencing, I can’t help but wish that life was like The Simpsons, where random, unlikely, and often bizarre circumstances culminate in the procurement of an exciting career opportunity.

But, alas, I don’t live in a strange, fictional cartoon world, despite what some of my friends might say. The world I inhabit is one of sharp economic downturn, financial uncertainty and wage cuts in the face of a rising cost of living.

My best friend Dan, he of “The Unemployed Philosopher” fame, recently successfully defended his doctoral thesis. Unfortunately even with his new found title of Doctor of Philosophy, he still finds himself as an unemployed philosopher. He and I have talked many times about our struggles to find stable, long-lasting employment. Please notice that I left “meaningful” out of that phrase. It often feels now that wanting it to be stable, long-lasting and meaningful is wanting too much.

Amongst my friends I’ve noticed a trend. Many are either taking whatever they can or they’re going back to school in the hopes it will give them more options. It’s disconcerting the number of friends I have who, despite being armed with university degrees, have ended up working in fast food places. I can’t shake this feeling that it wasn’t their intent to spend several years and tens of thousands of dollars so that they can say “would you like fries with that”.

There are many factors working against those who are job seeking. The most obvious is the downturn the economy has taken. Companies are trying to find a balance between minimizing costs, maximizing profits and still putting out a solid product. Another factor is people are working longer and delaying retirement more than ever. Whether it’s the feeling of being able to keep up the job demands at an older age or the desire to make more money in order to stave off retirement financial issues, people are staying in the workforce longer, meaning less vacant positions in the workforce.

In North America, more and more jobs are outsourced because the cost of labor is cheaper overseas. With the rise of the internet and instant communication from all corners of the globe, it’s no longer necessary for you to be where your job is. All one has to do is take a look at the rise of teleconferencing to see the truth of this. Teleconferencing has advanced to the point where even doctoral visitation and diagnosis can be done remotely.

At this point I want to talk about the role education plays in the job hunt. Education is important, but it also needs saying that not all degrees are created equal. An example that comes to mind is the story of someone I know who flunked out of one college’s early childhood education program with marks in the low 30’s and went on to an ECE program at another college and graduated with marks in the high 90’s. So why the sudden huge improvement? It all came down to the course requirements. The college the student flunked out of had requirements that demanded much more of the student in comparison to the second program they entered. When a mutual friend who was in the ECE program at the first college heard the requirements of the second college’s ECE program, their reaction was “Why am I working so hard at my program when I could switch colleges, do a minimum of work and still end up with the same degree?”

My friend raises a good point: why work so hard when you’ll end up with the same degree as someone who’s doing next to nothing by comparison? It’s true that different universities and colleges hold different weight in terms of how they’re viewed by employers. And it should be that way. A degree in business from Harvard should carry more weight than one from a local community college because Harvard has better resources and higher expectations of their students.

But this raises a secondary problem with education: let’s say you have two students in the same program at the same school. The first student is getting high marks on all course requirements and exams and pushing themselves to excel in everything they do. The second student is barely passing their courses and exams and doing the bare minimum required to graduate. Eventually both do graduate and start applying for jobs and positions in their field. The problem that arises now is that, on paper at least, both are graduates of the same program and would essentially be equal in the eyes of prospective employers.

Are they equal in what they can bring to the workplace? No. Not even remotely. But that doesn’t matter because until they get called in for an interview, they are on equal footing by having the same degree. Other resume factors, such as prior work experience, internships, and volunteering could work in favor of one applicant over the other, but it still depends on what the prospective employer is looking for on the resume.

There is often no distinction made between qualifications on a resume and what a person is actually capable of. It might sound like I’m talking about the problem of being considered under-qualified but I’m not. While one’s qualifications is an important consideration in filling a vacancy, I’ve found being considered overqualified to be just as much of an issue. The idea of being rejected because of being “overqualified” doesn’t make any sense to me but I’ve experienced it and I’ve heard many friends talk about being rejected for the same reason.

Logically, being “overqualified” should be a good thing. It implies that less training is needed, the learning curve and adjustment period will be shorter, productivity will be higher and less supervision is needed, resulting in more office efficiency. However, in my experience, it seems to also mean you have higher wage expectations, the desire for more benefits and vacation time and general attitude of entitlement. The irony is that I, and most of my friends who’ve been told “you’re overqualified”, don’t have those entitlement issues. We just want to work. After all, some income is better than no income.

Sometimes it feels like the employers have a specific, idealized candidate in their mind, and will just wait it out, knowing that the odds are in their favor for finding that person because of how specialized education has become.

There is an argument to be made that with the ever-increasing course specialization available in colleges and universities, we’re hitting a point where we’re becoming too specialized. This is something Dan has been facing in trying to find employment in the academic field. Between more professors opting to put off retirement and the ever increasing number of graduates with Masters and Doctoral degrees, the number of applicants is far outpacing the number of open positions. For Dan, this is forcing his hand in that he’s been investigating alternate routes of employment that while still involving his Philosophy degree, don’t involve teaching.

I’ve been doing similar things that, while involving my skills as a filmmaker and my knowledge of media creation, doesn’t necessarily involve filmmaking itself. And while trying to find a steady paycheck through media endeavors, I’ve found myself taking on work as a renovator and carpenter in an effort to try to make ends meet. Is there anything wrong with renovation and carpentry? No. I grew up doing it but I still find myself wanting to do something that engages the more creative and academic parts of my brain.

My wife, Michelle, is facing a different obstacle as she looks for work. She’s working on completing a degree in Art Therapy after graduating with a dual degree in Art History and Psychology. The obstacle she faces now is that art therapy is a relatively new field, which is translating into there not being a lot of positions open for her as an art therapist. Her plan is to eventually open up a private practice, but for now she faces uncertainty and I face the prospect of many more meals consisting of eating Spaghetti-O’s because that’s all our budget can afford, with bills and school fees always jumping for every dollar we have.

I know that in time the job hunt frustrations I, and so many people that I know have, will get better. The economy will eventually correct itself, as it always does given enough time, and things will turn around. Dan will eventually find his niche in the realm of philosophy and ethics, and Michelle will eventually find her niche in art therapy. They’re both too smart not to.

As for me? Well, I’m betting I’m just off-kilter enough to find my niche. I’d prefer if it has to do with filmmaking or writing or media in general, but maybe I’m being too picky. Perhaps my destiny does lie in asking if you’d like fries with that. I can handle that, can’t I?

Aww, who am I kidding? I’d go crazy as a fry jockey. Give it a month and I’d probably attack someone with the fry chipper. I guess this means I’ll have to keep looking and holding out hope I’m someone’s perfect job candidate.

Oh, that episode of The Simpsons I mentioned at the beginning? It ends with Homer deciding being police chief is too dangerous and saying he’s going to give his badge to the first person he sees. That person ends up being Chief Wiggum, who takes the badge and says “That’s funny because this is how I got this job the first time”.

Hmm… living in a cartoon world gets more appealing every day…


An Open Letter to the Aboriginal Youth of Canada

As I write this, Aboriginals are making their strength known in Canada as never before. The Idle No More movement has dominated headlines for six weeks now and it shows no signs of letting up. I have tried to figure out what will happen next for us as First Nations people as we fight a bill that will have profound effects on our ways of life for years to come. That’s why I’m writing this letter to all of you, because right now over half of the Aboriginal population of Canada is under 25.

Like you, I am Aboriginal. I am an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. Unlike many of you I didn’t grow up on a reserve. I know that many of you who have grown up on reserves have done in so complete poverty. I know that in many of those cases the poverty has been because of forces far beyond your control, the seeds of which were planted 150 years ago.

It saddens me when I hear the stories of addiction and suicide that run rampant on reserves. The world that’s been created for us, both as Aboriginals and Canadians, is unacceptable. We deserve a better world to be born into. Aboriginal children deserve, like all children do, a chance to explore, to learn, to grow and to find love and happiness.

The world we will find ourselves in over the next few years is an uncertain one at best. Our rights, heritage and even our very identity as Aboriginals are at risk. We need to show trust and patience with the generations who’ve come before us, as we all try to chart the best course through these murky times and find the best future for all of us, not just as Aboriginals but as Canadians.

You might ask us why we are fighting so hard right now for our rights and freedoms. The answer, ultimately, is simple: you, the Aboriginal youth of Canada.

It will be the Aboriginal youth of Canada who ultimately receive both the blessings and pays the price for the actions taking place now. It will be up to us, a generation which mostly has never known the abuse of the residential school system, to lead our people past the physical, emotional and spiritual scars inflicted on us there. It will be up to us to figure out how to leave that pain in the past, and most importantly, how to forgive those who inflicted those grievous wounds on us.

I know we have it in ourselves to find that strength to forge a brighter future. I know that given the chance we can rise above the cycles of addictions and abuse that have enslaved us for so long. I’ve seen the potential in Aboriginal youth, and what that potential can do when given a proper chance to grow and face the world on its own terms. I can only imagine the bright future that awaits the Aboriginal peoples of Canada if the Aboriginal youth of Canada are given the fair chance we deserve.

I also know that we can’t do it alone, and we shouldn’t have to. I ask that all of you forgive the older Aboriginal generations for where they have failed you in the past. If they have discouraged you in your dreams it’s because they’ve lost the ability to believe in their own. If they’ve told you that making something of yourselves is an unachievable goal, it’s because the weight of their past has left them unable to see beyond their pain. We are a proud people and that can be both our greatest strength and our greatest fault.

There will always be those who will mock you and try to tear you down simply because you’re Aboriginal. I know this because I’ve been through it myself. But it’s up to you to either accept those words or reject them, remembering that blind hatred is something best left alone. It’s not easy to walk away from hate but we must be strong and rise above all the anger because to give into it only leads to destruction.

The future, our future, is only limited by how hard we’re willing to work and the risks we’re willing to take. I won’t promise you that things will always work out and that people won’t fail you. I won’t promise you that you’ll win every battle or that the victory you seek won’t take everything you have in the process. I won’t promise you the right thing will always be obvious or easy. But I will promise you that there is something greater out there for Aboriginals, and now is the time to come together and work towards it.

We have all the potential in the world to do great and amazing things. The first step is to get an education so that we can unlock our potential and help each other find talents and abilities we might have never known we had. Each of us has a purpose and it’s up to each of you find out what it is.

 The second step is to always remember the special heritage we hold inside ourselves. While the changes that are coming for Aboriginals are uncertain and the end results of our coming together as never before are unknown, know that the key to our future, as both Aboriginals and as Canadians, rests in the choices we make as it becomes our turn to lead.

I look forward to that day.

Apegish wii-zhawenimik Manidoo (I hope you are blessed by the Creator)

Shane Pennells


Dear Readers

I hope to have some new posts up soon. I have been battling the vicious flu that has hit Canada and the US so hard. Armed with medication, tissues and some soup, I am finally winning this war that has consumed the past 10 days.

A shout out and a big “thank you!” goes to Dan over at The Unemployed Philosopher for taking the time to proofread my upcoming articles as I’ve slowly succumb to the wrath of the Booger Man.

Stay tuned!

Shane Pennells

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker

There is a growing movement in Canadian Aboriginal circles called Idle No More. Its mission statement is to call “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water. Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth”.

The driving force behind Idle No More is opposition to a piece of legislation before Canada’s Parliament, an omnibus bill with everything from changes to Senatorial pensions to the construction of a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit. The two sections causing the issues in Aboriginal circles are changes to the Indian Act and further changes to the Environmental Assessment Act.

Changes to the Indian Act include changing the rules about what kind of meetings are required to lease or grant interest in designated lands, as well as giving the Aboriginal Affairs minister the authority to call a band meeting or referendum for the purpose of considering the absolute surrender of the band’s territory to the federal government.

The Environmental Assessment Act changes include making major pipeline and inter-provincial power line projects exempt from requirements that they prove they wouldn’t damage or destroy navigable waterways in Canada. A list of lakes and rivers was attached to this section of the bill and anything mentioned on it is no longer under federal protection.

The effects the omnibus bill can have are potentially devastating to Aboriginal land claims. The changes to the Indian Act make it far easier for the Federal government to make expropriation claims on Aboriginal lands. Expropriation might be better known as “eminent domain”, meaning authorities have the right to buy private property for public use as long as there is fair compensation. This by itself isn’t detrimental to Aboriginal land claims, but there are other factors which make the timing of this legislation very suspect. We’ll get to those in a moment. The Environmental Assessment Act changes have taken protection off many Aboriginal-controlled lakes and rivers, making them open for development and resource harvesting. Again, it’s not the changes themselves that are the problem, but discussing what has come before the omnibus bill will make things clearer.

Let’s turn back the clock a bit:

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and gave a solemn apology for Residential Schools, where thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and subjected to mistreatment, including physical and sexual abuse. This apology was seen as a strong step towards reconciliation for Aboriginal peoples across Canada and a government with which they have for decades viewed with mistrust.

On October 28, 2011, the Aboriginal community of Atiwapiskat declared a state of emergency for the third time in three years, resulting from multiple issues including housing, utilities, inadequate water and sanitation systems. The media attention the story quickly gathered brought the poverty of many Aboriginal communities to the screens of millions. The Harper government’s response was seen as slow, inadequate and willfully ignorant of the facts of the situation. Many Aboriginals I talked to saw this as a turning point in fighting the sense of increasing marginalization of Aboriginal communities.

On January 24, 2012, Harper met with Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo and while calling for an overhaul and updating of the Indian Act, promised that “Our government has no grand scheme to repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act”.

On June 4, 2012, Bill C-428, the Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act, was introduced by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Rob Clarke. The bill had mixed reactions in the Aboriginal communities. While the bill called for greater authority for Aboriginal chiefs and councils and less authority for the Native Affairs minister and federal government, it was also seen as a step against Prime Minister Harper’s promise to not repeal or unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act. The bill passed its first reading on December 5, 2012, by a vote of 156-129, with Prime Minister Harper voting in favor of it.

This brings us back to the omnibus bill that set Idle No More in motion. The bill, also known as Bill C-45, was passed on December 5 as well, by a vote of 156-128, again with Prime Minister Harper voting in favor of it.

So now what? From the joy of reconciliation to anger over changes in the Indian Act, it’s been a turbulent few years for Canadian Aboriginals. The timing of the bills, and their affect on Aboriginals is suspect because of the Harper government’s push to build a new oil pipeline, one that would most likely have run through Aboriginal land. The changes in how expropriation claims are made, to me, feels like the government is gearing up to start making claims on Aboriginal lands that run along the proposed pipeline routes by simply saying “the government has need of this land”. The taking away of protection status on some 16,000 lakes and rivers, again to me, seems like a move to make expropriation claims that much easier. What bothers me most is the giving the Aboriginal Affairs minister the authority to call a band meeting for the purpose of considering the absolute surrender of the band’s territory to the federal government. This feels to me like nothing more than a end-game solution for getting land that has politically valuable purpose.

The use of the omnibus bill, in which literally hundreds of amendments to law are pushed together, seems like a tactic designed simply to make it impossible to adequately argue against the proposed amendments in the House of Commons. With so many things pushed together, it becomes overwhelming to try to fully anticipate all intended affects of each section of the bill. The irony in this is that when Stephen Harper was first elected to Parliament, he was an outspoken critic of omnibus bill usage by the Liberal government, calling it an injustice to democracy.

I have no desire to turn this into an anti-Harper tirade. That’s not going to help anyone, especially in a situation as politically fragile as what we find ourselves in now. What I will say is this: when I see ads on TV promoting the proposed pipeline I smirk to myself because I can only imagine the amount of money and political wrangling behind that advertisement. Let me put it this way: if the pipeline was not such a political minefield, you wouldn’t need commercials to sway interest because there would be little opposition to it to begin with.

As for Idle No More, here’s my take on it: I myself am an Aboriginal of Ojibway descent and part of the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations. I was not raised in an Aboriginal home but was adopted by a Caucasian family. In this way I am, in many ways, an outsider looking in at my own culture. At the risk of opening up a firestorm, I am glad that I was adopted because it has given me opportunities that wouldn’t have been there if I had been raised by my birth family. Unfortunately my birth family falls in the category so many other Aboriginals have found themselves in, one where the cycle of addiction and brokenness only repeats itself with each passing generation.

A friend of mine teaches in a school in Fort Albany, Ontario, on James Bay. It is a mostly Aboriginal community and the stories of broken families she’s relayed to me are heartbreaking. Many of her students often miss class because they have to take care of their parents, who often spend their days and nights getting drunk. A number of those parents went to residential schools, and the abuse they suffered there has left them hardened and bitter towards any non-Aboriginal person. My friend, who is Caucasian, has said to me several times that “if you’re not Aboriginal, the chances of you being accepted in the community drop greatly”.

I say all this because I want to try to convey to you what’s at risk for the Aboriginal community. This isn’t just about land claims or bitterness over past treatment. There is a very real sense among Aboriginals that this a move to slowly do away with Aboriginals as a distinct society within Canada. If you slowly take away land claims, legally and politically assigned rights and privileges, eventually there will no distinction between Aboriginals and any other Canadian citizen. Perhaps the best way I can phrase this is that it’s “assimilation via the installment plan”.

I spoke at an Idle No More gathering and said that the time has come for Aboriginals to stop letting ourselves be marginalized and that it’s time to break free from that cycle of brokenness that has affected so many families. Most importantly, the time has come to forgive those who wronged us, whether it be by sending our children to residential schools, or putting us on reservations that limited our livelihood, or by any other way that we’ve been wronged.

Shawn Atleo, Aboriginal First Nations Chief, said ” We can’t work in isolation. The status quo has to be significantly changed, and these young people in the communities where I go need to see, taste and feel results sooner than later. I hope we’re in the kind of tipping point movement that other movements have experienced, whether it’s civil rights, women’s rights, the environmental issues”.

I do find myself torn when it comes to the Idle No More movement. On the one side, I can see where the merits are, where the possibility of change lies, but on the other, I really do wonder what lasting affect this activism will have, especially in seeing self-implosion of the Occupy movement. That said I do dream of a day when Natives are able to live up to their full potential in Canadian society. I dream of a day when the vicious cycles of addiction are finally broken. I dream of a day when I no longer have to worry about slurs and vitriol being flung at me simply because of my ethnic heritage.

Aboriginals have a voice and they have a vote that counts as equally as any other Canadian’s but up to now we’ve squandered that voice. For too long we’ve heard cries of “I’ve been wronged” instead of “I have something to contribute”. We are guilty for our predicament in that we stopped believing we could be more than what we were constantly told we were.

The first step is forgiveness. If we can forgive, we can move forward. I’m excited to see so many of my Aboriginal brothers and sisters coming together in a way never before seen. I just wish it didn’t take the threat of the end of our status as Aboriginals to ignite the fire.