Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The summer after I turned thirteen, my parents encouraged me to get a summer job. I had no idea how to get a job, so I wandered down to the local student summer employment office for some advice. During my meeting with the job counsellor, I was asked if I would be interested in working at the courthouse for a few days doing some landscaping. I was so excited. My first job! Of course I accepted, so she told me to report to the landscaping office at the courthouse the following morning. Being thirteen, I didn’t take any notes, so I completely forgot the name of the person I was supposed to meet at 8:00 AM. Oh well, I would figure it out.

I wasn’t much of a morning person at that time, but that morning I was up and ready to go. I was so proud to have a job and I looked forward to getting paid for my own work, not some errand I had done for someone I knew. I jumped on my bike and rode off to the courthouse in search of the mystery person I had already forgotten. Upon arriving at the back parking lot, I locked up my bike and headed into the first door I could find. After some wandering around some back hallways, someone in an office came out and asked me if I was Jason. “Nope, Nathan,” I replied. “I’m sure it is just a typo,” he mumbled as he ushered me into his office. “You’re smaller than I expected,” he chuckled. I didn’t laugh.

After some quick paperwork, he asked me to follow him to the front lawn. He handed me a shovel, pointed at the sprinkler heads that needed replacing and snapped, “Dig!”. And dig I did, all day in fact. Throughout the day, I noticed some other guys pruning trees, trimming hedges, and other landscaping tasks. There was someone with them showing them what to do and they stopped every so often for a drink and even donuts if I remember correctly. Meanwhile, all alone, I dug. I think I ended up digging out about 50 or so sprinkler heads before my ‘supervisor’ (whom I never saw all day) came running out and quickly asked me my name. “Nathan Hall,” I replied. “Hall?” he said inquisitively. “I think there’s been a big mistake,” he stammered. “Who sent you here?” he asked. I informed him that the job counsellor had told me to come to do some landscaping. He laughed. I didn’t. He explained that he was in charge of juvenile delinquents who were required to do community service work. “I was to look out for a kid named Jason who had beat up another guy and took his money. There is NO way you could do that!” he exclaimed. I sighed and dropped the shovel. “Does that mean I’m not going to get paid?” I inquired. He wasn’t sure, but he would work on it he explained. “Can I go?” I asked. And with that, he sent me on my way.

While my first ‘job’ makes for an entertaining anecdote now, at the time I felt demeaned and belittled. I didn’t know why others were treated so much better than I was and why the guy I was working for seemed so abrupt, almost antagonistic towards me. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, but it does illustrate to me the value we put on people based on who we think they are. In this case, I was perceived to be a criminal of sorts and was not treated with any level of respect because of it. Also, the work I was given was far more difficult than that of the paid workers and I was not given any support or encouragement. Did I deserve it if I actually was who they thought I was? I guess it comes down to the value you put on the life of a human versus what things they have done.

In the part of Canada in which I presently live, there is a very high percentage of people who were not born in Canada or were born to parents not originally from Canada. On the surface, people tend to get along quite well, with a large percentage of people saying that they appreciate the multicultural landscape that has developed in this area. The problem I find is that most people are happy when there is something in it for them. Whenever I hear someone defending or attacking immigration, it almost always revolves around what immigrants add or take away from our culture or Canadians. We put value on what we can get out of them. Yes, I believe we get more than we give when it comes to others settling in Canada, but really the conversation should be about what value there is in helping someone.

Yesterday in class, I asked the question, “Why do people help others?” It was part of a pre-reading that talked about microfinance and I wanted them to dig deeper into the motivation behind doing things for others. I got the usual “You feel good” reply, but I got blanks stares when I asked why that is. They struggled to first understand what I meant and then with coming up with an answer. For the most part, people in general would have a tough time coming up with a reply to that. To me, the good feeling that comes from helping others in need is a byproduct of a deeper, subconscious understanding that this is what is right.

Why should we be allowing others to come to Canada to work? Because they are people like you and me and are just trying to find themselves in this world. Are others going to take advantage of this? Yes, and also in reverse. There are plenty of people who are quite willing to make a quick buck off of someone’s desperation. Are criminals going to come over as well? Yes, because there are those who welcome them and are willing to work together with them. Shouldn’t our tax dollars be going to help Canadians? Yes, and those in other areas of the world through humanitarian aid. For me, it comes down to respect for one another. I know, I know, I harp on this all the time. The reason I do is that I feel it is something that is desperately lacking in this world. If we took the time to think of others first, a pile of problems would simply vanish.

Government funding for free ESL classes has been ‘reallocated’, which means it is going somewhere else that makes more political sense. After all, politicians are certainly not immune to the “what’s in it for me” problem I have just mentioned. They need to make sure the ‘right’ people are happy in order to keep themselves in power. Immigrants are not perceived as a priority in this area. Sure, they say all of the right things, but their actions speak much louder to me. There are those who say that immigrants should learn the language before coming or pay for it out of their own pocket. My answer to that is then we should be eliminating anything that is public such as education, health, and welfare. From what I can tell, I haven’t paid near enough to say that I have a right to all of those things if you put it that way. Yes, some people have, but I would venture that most people have gained more than they have given in the form of government services, and they are actually more likely to need them in the future as they get older. No, these people haven’t put that money in to this point, but there are those who are saying they don’t deserve to even start. Guess what, we all went to public school in the first 18 years of your life without putting anything into the government coffers. It was an investment in the future. Actually, it was because we see a value in the person, in this case the children. Why can’t we do that for immigrants? The cost of giving them ESL training is minimal and it makes a HUGE difference to them.

Money and power. That is the value we put on things. I hope we can change that. I value human decency.

Oh, and to finish off my first story, I did eventually get paid. My first paycheck came from the Canadian Department of Justice making it my first and only civil service job. Which makes me wonder, am I still eligible for a government pension?

3 thoughts on “Helping

  1. Hi Nathan,
    I’m not sure that this comment will add to the discussion in any way, but I just wanted to say thank you for sharing such a clear illustration of how our attitudes to people are shaped by our ideas about them.
    I strongly believe that we should treat everyone how we want to be treated, and when people ask me why I helped someone in a particular situation, my answer is always “How would you feel if you were them?” Having said that, sometimes I do walk by, and feel bad about it. It’s such a hard thing to do consistently, but it’s important to try.
    Thank you Nathan, and I’ve bookmarked this to use as a reading text with groups in the future.

    1. I appreciate the comment, Sandy. I agree with you when you talk about treating others as we would like to be treated. It is sad there are others who just don’t see it that way.

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