Thursday, October 14, 2010

To Be or Not to Be (Canadian) Eh?

Wow, what a day makes.
I came into this experience secure in my knowledge and belief - and more than a little smug - that as a Canadian I was different. I was one more of those multitude of Canadian travellers with my back pack and luggage adorned with Canadian flags so as not to be mistaken for our neighbours to the south. Was I a little self-centred? You bet. And naive and ill-informed too because apparently, not everyone is quite so willing to accept us with open arms - and Mongolia definitely falls into this camp.

I'm in Ottawa taking pre-departure Intercultural Training through CIDA and Foreign Affairs Canada and as part of this they brought in a woman from Mongolia to speak to us about various cultural differences we might face and to give us some background and insight in to the country and it's history. It was an amazing experience to hear-first hand what I've only read about up until now but some of what she spoke about was definitely NOT in the Lonely Planet guide I thought of as the definitive resource up until now.

I won't get into a geo-political discussion of all that she spoke about - and it must be acknowledged that hers is only one opinion that I've heard at this point - but a couple of things really hit home, not the least of which was the fact that as Canadians we might be received with less than open arms. It turns out that Canada has had fairly strained relations with Mongolia. We were the last G8 nation to open an embassy, which the Mongolians took as an insult and we have no "official" presence in the region, unlike our neighbours to the south who are helping with all kinds of development projects. But here's the real kicker.....the main bone of contention is our involvement in the Mongolian mining industry. It seems we're the biggest player on the ground and we're involved in several large gold mining projects but from the average Mongolians perspective it anything but an equal partnership. I have no idea if it's an accurate assessment or not but our liaison claims we're seen as an intruder that is only there to take and isn't giving back. What really stung is this is a phrase I've used myself to describe others, here and abroad, and I don't like it. To hear someone describe Canadians this way was a real eye opener.

Toto, we're definitely NOT in Kansas anymore. From here on out things might get interesting.

But, all this apprehension aside, sometimes you meet people so inspiring, so amazing, that you just have to share it. Last night was just such an occasion. I met a member of our team that was part of a team that hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a fund raiser for African aid through the Canadian Co-operative Association. Through their efforts they were able to raise more than $60,000 which the Association will use to fight poverty in the region though co-operative development. In his words, they wanted to reach the summit so they could light a torch for all to see; and with that light they wanted to show people there was hope where there had only been despair, there was love where there had only been hate and there was dignity where there had only been oppression.

Sometimes, you find inspiration in the least likely places..........

Until later

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