Perhaps you have seen photos posted on Facebook of Canadian students on working holidays in impoverished countries. They are surrounded by new friends or maybe children with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders, though their bodies don’t actually touch. Their smiles show just a little too much tooth to be sincere, while their rigidly straight posture reveals that this is an entirely crafted moment.

The awkwardness of the situation is, in small ways, painfully visible.

A year spent abroad has become a rite of passage. It’s the cherry on top of a liberal education. Rightly so: it’s only by seeing where other people stand that we can really know where we are.

But why has taking a year off to travel become so intrinsically linked with helping the developing world? Why must we pretend we are helping others on what is in essence a self-serving mission?

The forebearer to the working holiday, or what the British call the “Gap Year”, was the Grand Tour of the 18th and 19th centuries. The English upper crust would tour continental Europe to take in the sights and refine their classical education. There was no pretense at accomplishing something for the people they were visiting. The aim was to learn, maybe also to get a little drunk and have a few sexual encounters along the way.

In the modern evolution of the Grand Tour, it is not enough to see the world: you have to save it. There are a host of organizations, not to mention the government, offering the chance for young Canadians to work overseas for non-profit organizations. And the poorer the country, the more street cred you get for having been there.

Wanting to help marginalized communities is in itself an honourable aim. But the current fad of working holidays seems to have its roots more in affectation than compassion. Thanks in part to a stream of celebrities making guest appearances in sub-Saharan Africa, humanitarianism has become something to imitate, and the apathetic indifference that defined cool in previous decades has been supplanted by a sense of social responsibility. Within this zeitgeist, the experience of having worked in a developing country has become a sort of fashion statement, much like a $200-dollar handbag made from recycled tires.

The problem is not with wanting to do something good but with the pretense of doing something good, as well as the notion that doing something good can be a byproduct of a holiday, accomplished by students who are themselves just learning how to function within their own society, never mind a foreign one.

It’s more than just a little arrogant to think that twenty-somethings from the developed world will be able to contribute meaningfully to a country they have never been to and can generally only hope to begin to understand over the course of a working holiday.

I say this from experience. Having been part of the hoardes of young Canadian who find themselves working for NGOs abroad, I can say that, despite some sincerely good intentions, what we had to offer was minimal compared to what we had to learn. Not to mention that working holidays are a cultural practice in which recent high school graduates suddenly find themselves in countries where alcohol is a third of the price of what it is in Canada.

This is not to say that programs that send young Canadians to work for NGOs in the developing world aren’t valuable. They are extremely valuable. You learn things that can’t be taught in a classroom and the cultural exchange is worthwhile for both sides of the equation. There is nothing wrong with that – but let’s be honest about who the main beneficiaries are and why we are doing it.

What is objectionable is pretence. The pretence that we are doing it for some other reasons than our own desire to be well-travelled, to gain a little respect for having lived without running water, and to have a few Facebook photos showing that we are socially-conscious people.

It’s heady times for politics right now. Our country is fiercely divided, and unrest is bubbling constantly to the surface. In Russia, artists are being jailed for engaging in political activism. In the USA, the race toward the presidential election is reaching cartoonish proportions. But, have you ever felt like you… well… like you really just don’t understand any of it? Like everyone else seems to be talking real educated-like, and you just can’t seem to keep up? Well, if that’s the case, then I have a few tips for you.

Here’s the scenario: You’re out for lunch, say, with some business associates, or at a party where people refer to the drinks as highballs, having a great time, when without warning the conversation veers suddenly political. And wouldn’t you know it, you don’t know a thing about politics! Local, national, international – nothing! Everyone is talking about “bills” being “passed” and “candidates” being “elected” and all this stuff that just sounds like Greek to you (side note: Greeks actually invented politics). Well, fear no more because here are a few easy points that will have you sounding like a regular pundit in no time (a pundit is a fancy word for someone who talks repeatedly about politics, often on a radio show or blog. Usually a blog.)!

First of all, the most important thing to remember is that whenever you’re not saying anything, you come off as ignorant. So, talk at great length regardless of how familiar you are with the particular political topic. Whoa, whoa, whoa! How are you supposed to do this if you don’t know politics? EASY. Just fill your vocabulary with words like recession (an economic—having to do with money—downturn), partisan (someone who is aroused by a party fundraiser), bipartisan (someone who is aroused by all the party fundraisers), scrotum (I’m pretty sure that’s a thing), doublespeak (two politicians saying the same thing at the same time for more impact), or caucus (a secret meeting, usually in the steppes of central Asia, I guess). You see, nobody really knows what these terms mean, so peppering your conversation with them will make you seem knowledgeable.

Now, we all know that listening is just as big a part of conversation as speaking, so when a fellow conversationalist is taking his or her turn to speak, make sure to really look like you’re listening intently and you understand what he or she is saying. Maintain aggressive eye contact. Remember, it’s far more important that you appear to be listening and understanding than it is to actually listen and understand, because the person talking probably doesn’t know what they are talking about either. Try to think of a really hard math problem so that you look like you’re concentrating real hard, and when they’re finished respond enthusiastically like you just remembered where you left your keys.

There are a few constants that you can always rely on. For instance you can never fail by mentioning “the war”, because there is always a war going on someplace and most people like to pretend they care about it. You can always say that “things need to change” and just generally badmouth current government because people are never satisfied and everyone always hates the government (probably because they don’t understand politics). Avoid using swears when badmouthing government because people who are interested in politics are smart and smart people are offended by swears. The one exception to this rule is the term “gerrymandering fuck-gape”. Political know-it-alls love this term, and you’d do well to use it as frequently as you possibly can.

Another thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of these terms we have for describing political “parties” or “viewpoints” are interchangeable. “Republican” means the same thing as “Conservative”. “Liberal” just means “Fascist”. “Bloc Quebecois” and “Green Party”? Same thing! So mix it up a bit. Instead of always saying “NDP” sometimes say “Zionist” instead. It’s all good.

You can get a good idea of who the major players are by watching popular late night television shows. And it’s always a good idea to compare them to past politicians because everyone loves past politicians. If a lot of people are talking negatively about a certain politician say: “Yeah, he sure ain’t no Kennedy!” Everyone loves that guy because he pulled Excalibur from the Stone and he got shot. Or say: “He’s no Mulroney!” Everyone loves him because while he was president of Canada he invented money and his son successfully brought television to the country. And television is something everyone loves. Other beloved politicians from days of yore that everyone loves: Lincoln, for inventing the town car; Caesar for being able to talk to dogs and inventing the least healthy salad around; and Ceausescu, for his tireless efforts to keep his people safe from bears.

If someone disagrees with you or says you don’t know what you’re talking about, be insistent. Talk louder and throw in more political lingo. Anyone who really cares about politics is always trying to force their views on others. Always talk about how much you vote, even if you don’t, because people know how into politics you are by how much you vote. Tell them you vote in EVERY election. Tell them that you vote three or four times usually. You care that much.

So, basically all of this should bring you up to an expert level, equivalent to, say, a senator or a chamberlain. If you follow these simple guidelines you’ll never have to be left out of a political conversation again. And good thing, too, because we live in a very exciting time of recessions and robocalls and abolitionism!

*Photo from Family Guy

I’ve noticed a very interesting development over the last few weeks since the Occupy movement has really taken off. At first the criticism was that the protestors were vague and didn’t know what they were protesting. This became a pretty hard myth to push once it became very clear their position was quite simple: It is unfair that one group of people (billionaires) and one subset of society (corporations) are held to one standard while another group of people (the 99%) and another subset of society (small independent businesses) are held to entirely another standard. The message really doesn’t get any more simple that that. All of the complaints; that wealthy people are overly represented in our elected houses (both in the US and Canada) that corporations don’t pay enough taxes, that government is in bed with corporations, all of the complaints fit under that very simple belief of unfairness.

After it became impossible to criticize the lack of purpose, the next criticism, and the one that I find most intriguing, is that people supporting the Occupy movement are unpatriotic, and hate their country.


This criticism baffles me. There is perhaps nothing more inherently American than a big loud protest against tyranny. This was in fact how the country was founded. Canada and the US are two children of the same mother. America, her loud, brash, and passionate first born left the house in a fiery fit of rage holding up both middle fingers because he wasn’t going to take her crap anymore. Canada flipped back and forth on which side he supported until he too left the house a few years later. But instead of a fiery fit of rage, it was more a terse conversation with Mother insisting he couldn’t make it without her. Canada was the equivalent of a 40 year old basement dwelling online role playing game addict who never had a girlfriend when he was finally dragged out over 100 years later. So perhaps protest is a bit more unusual north of the 49th parallel, but there can be no question protest is in fact part of what makes America the great country it is.

But this kind of criticism, the straw man of suggesting that anyone speaking out against government therefore hates the country is not new. In fact it’s a constant and timeless tactic, one I became most familiar with during my university days where anyone who suggested the Israeli government was anything less than a model of humanitarianism and compassion toward its Arab citizens and Palestinian refugees was branded an anti-semite who thought at the very least Hitler had a press problem.

It’s a tired argument meant to work people up but it doesn’t hold water. To suggest that people who protest the current state of affairs in their city, country, or world do not love that world is as absurd as to suggest a parent who grounds their child for sneaking out or refuses to allow a drug addicted child to live at home does not love their child. Sometimes people we love do wrong things and as people who care we speak out to correct those wrongs. In fact it is one of the most loving acts one can do, to say “no you’ve gone too far and I won’t stand by and watch this in silence any longer.”

Why on earth would it be any different when applied toward a country?

There is an annoying tendency for those in power to associate themselves with the entity they control. Many years ago a friend of mine ran a petition to remove a corrupt executive from the helm of his student union. They responded by suing him for defaming the union. His defense was that he hadn’t defamed the union at all. If he’d defamed anyone, it was the individual. In fact he loved the union and that was why he was running the petition. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that, no, they personally were not the union.

Likewise, protesting the antics of government officials, of big business lobbying, of the way a codependent relationship was formed leading to housing crises and student loan crises… this does not in any way translate to “F*CK THE USA!” as some insist it does.

Rather, the protest is pointing out the pain being bestowed by these actions. Those protestors? They are fighting for freedom as much as any soldier. Freedom from corporate sponsors, from collusion. The people who fret that “if industry goes down no one will have jobs” sounds more like an abuse victim begging their fellow victims to be quiet and act real nice so not to piss off the abuser, blaming those who speak out for the angry temper tantrums the abuser throws.

Call them idealists. Call them unrealistic, Call them impractical. But let’s get to the point and have a conversation. Covering it up in accusations of anti-patriotism does nothing but avoid the issues.

Oh wait, was that the idea?