Saturday, 26 December 2015

DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT: Help Us Give toward Syrian Refugee Relief this Holiday Season

The Canadian government has pledged to match every dollar donated by individuals to registered Canadian charities in response to the Syrian refugee crisis - up to $100 million and until the end of the year.

I'm proud to see our government take action toward assisting Syrian refugees and want to do all I can to encourage others to respond in turn; just as the Government alone can't solve this problem, neither can I or you - it is only by working TOGETHER, combining our efforts and leveraging our commitments that we can make an appreciable difference in responding to this crisis.  

On that note and in that spirit, my wife and I are committing to MATCH dontations pledged through this GoFundMe campaign up to $1000.  This means that for every $1 you give to this cause, we will double it and then the Canadian government will MATCH that - doubling your donation AGAIN. As a result, if we can raise $1000 dollars between now and December 31, 2015, it will equal $4000 in actual on-the-ground aid toward the settlement of Syrian refugees! 



I am Nick Leeson, a lawyer who has worked with Legal Aid in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Prior to that experiece, I worked as an international legal intern with human rights advocacy clinics in West Africa. There I spent a portion of my time advocating for those at the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana.  I've witnessed the hardships faced by people displaced due to conflicts over religion, ethnicity or politics. No matter the cause, the results are the same: a refugee camp is no place to call home, it's no place to raise a family, no place to live; being displaced provides few opportunities to contribute, develop and grow.  If we can help to end such suffering, we must.

All monies raised will be pledged to Oxfam Canada, a registered Canadian charity that is receiving donations in response to the Syria crisis, and earmarked specifically for response to the Syria Relief Fund and contributed before December 31, 2015.

Please donate, please share this campaign with your friends and family.  Let's work together to  make a far bigger difference than we ever could individually and help show the people of Syria we stand with them.

Remember, for every $1 you give, $4 dollars will be going to this worthy cause, as we will match your donation and then Canada will match our combined donation, dollar to dollar.  Talk about making your charitable contribution count!

*On December 31st, when I match your pledge and re-direct the monies from this GoFundMe campaign to Oxfam Canada I will also personally pay the GoFundMe fees (5%) in order to ensure that your donation is matched in full.

Since we will be closing this campaign in the next 72 hours, please note that you can also give directly on your own, here: http://www.oxfam.ca/syriacrisis

Saturday, 15 November 2014

RIP GRANDPA GORDON NORM PRETTY - My first hero and role model

My Grandfather was a humble man, he never needed to be the centre of attention. In life and now in death, I'm not sure he would want us to focus on him; and I know he wouldn't want us to centre our attention on the sadness of his passing. So I've instead chosen to focus on the happiness that he brought into all of our lives and the indelible mark and impression that he made on our family and the way that we not only care and appreciate one another but also our country and community.

See, Grandpa was the patriarch of this family - a father, husband, provider, soldier, gentleman, grandfather.  I remember as a child when I was just a little boy, he would entertain Eric and I with stories of his adventures as a soldier fighting in World War II. A master storyteller he was - tales of woe, fortitude, sometimes unexpected fun, bravery, ... adventure. As two little boys from the countryside of Chatham-Kent, we were captivated; totally in awe with the things our grandpa had done, seen and places he had been.

Grandpa was my first hero (Eric's too).  Every visit to the Wabash farm Grandpa would take us around with him, play with us - perhaps to the dismay of mom, he introduced us to the World Wrestling Federation and the likes of Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior and the 'Macho Man' Randy Savage. We'd enact what we saw: Grandpa lifting Eric and I into the air together, each of us hanging from one of his biceps. The wrestling would inevitably end with all of us herding upstairs for a huge, delicious meal that Grandma had prepared. 

When I think of my Grandpa, I understand why I have such a great mom; why it is that my mother has such a loving spirit. Grandpa was courageous and brave. He was selfless and kind.  His sacrifice will never be forgotten. He was a great teacher to have, not only for my mom and all of us, but also for everybody else. He loved being a parent to his 8 children and a grandparent to his 18 grandchildren. It was his calling in life.

Though I've gotten older and both time and circumstance have pushed me further from home, I've always looked forward to my holiday visits - to seeing Grandpa, sitting at the poker table with his broad smile, home-brew in hand, and my uncles by his side. Like all of you, I will miss him dearly and it pains me to know that we've shared our last hug 'hello'; he was so much fun to be around, he loved to laugh and to have fun and I adored him. But a man as humble, loving and fun as Grandpa will always be remembered by those of us who knew him and loved him. Although we will miss him, his smile, his stories, his jokes, his love, we take consolation in the good feelings of our memories.

"Sorrow comes in great waves...but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us, it passes and we remain." - Henry James



Grandpa, I will always miss you. But I have so many wonderful memories to hang on to. You were my first hero, a role model and a great friend. Your guidance and love will carry me through to the end of my days.

I love you Grandpa, until we meet again.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

LIFE AS A LAWYER IN THE GREAT CANADIAN NORTH

In school I was most captivated by constitutional and government studies classes. When I realized that law was the glue that held it all together, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.  I love the law - its ability to shape social change and impact people’s lives has always inspired me, and its potential for building a better society has been a constant motivator. 

I saw becoming a lawyer as a primary means of engaging with that promise – though I admit the rigors and conformity of law school at times clouded that initial inspiration. I attended UBC in Vancouver, a large faculty with a strong emphasis on ‘BigLaw’, and, though I enjoyed my time there, I realized pretty early on that “one of these things is not like the other” - everyone was focused on corporate law jobs, summer clerkships, working on big figure deals. It all just filled me with dread, yet the social pressure to take that path can be pretty intense, and I did it too, for a short time. I’m glad that I did. It provided a slew of challenges and confirmed for me that I was right to pursue a brand of work that intrinsically made me happy. So I left.

The corporate law experience prompted me to embark on a legal internship with a human rights organization in West Africa. As unconventional and surprising as this decision was at the time, quite simply, it was the best one I’ve ever made. I found myself in an environment where the rule of law often existed in name only, conditions that created rosters full of clients but no access to the lawyers needed to represent them. I worked with clients who had been forcibly removed from their homes, minorities and impoverished groups whose legal rights were either forgotten or ignored. Being their advocate filled me with a deep sense of purpose and meaning. I emerged with a reconnection as to why I became a lawyer in the first place – to be someone others confide in and seek advice from, to solve problems for people, and to help improve their lives. 

My return home was with the vision and intent of serving my own community in this same way – promoting accessibility to justice. The opportunity of practicing with the Legal Services Board in the North has presented this and a whole lot more. Practice here has a frontier aspect to it; you feel as though the legal system and local community are evolving together. The legal community has a similarly collaborative tenor – a legal body that is largely collegial, not needlessly adversarial, and where sharp tactics are frowned upon rather than rewarded. 



That’s not to say coming North has all been easy. It has its own unique difficulties. Friends and family are thousands of kilometers away and mail never seems to arrive on time, to say nothing of the -50 winter chill, but its charms are unparalleled - the midnight sun, northern lights, and a chance to experience some of the world’s last untouched wilderness. And, while the cases I work on aren’t likely to get me before the SCC, they are equal in their significance; there is something to be said for work that allows me to spend my days assisting some of the most vulnerable members of society. Although the difference I make here isn’t likely to change the world, in a community that is small enough to retain the true meaning of the word, there is a heightened intimacy that allows the impact you make to be felt all around you. In short, while there are still moments where I say to myself “is this nuts?” – such as the first time I walked on the open tundra – my only regret with coming North is that I didn’t do it sooner. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: Part 2 of 2


Life for the Other Half 

I confess that I wasn’t initially prepared for some of what I saw. 

Walking through the unpaved streets and disorganized red dirt roads of a place like Lomé was more than a little unsettling.  Though I had of course scurried past shantytowns of similarly unspeakable poverty in my many travels – and perhaps even exposed myself to smaller samplings of it in my brief bouts of community service at home – never before I had experienced poverty of such size and scale.  The first time a colleague of mine told me that, since sanitary wear was simply beyond the reach of many local girls, they were forced to resort to the use of old rags, pieces of blanket, sack, newspaper or even leaves to contain their menstrual flow, I refused to believe it. The next day, I had a client who prostituted his daughter to help pay his wife’s hospital bills – my introduction had only just begun.  By the time I walked through the Buduburam refugee camp, I thought I had seen enough to be prepared for anything, but I had difficulty believing what I saw was even real: there was what felt like an endless chain of pleas for food, help, comfort – anything. Body after body, so thin and emaciated, that it was legitimate to ask, how are they still alive?

While true that in some ways I had never felt so helpless, in an ironic twist, at the same time I had never been so empowered. The former being obvious – the poverty that surrounded me was not just confronting but inescapable and impossible for me to heal – but the latter, because every client I spoke with and represented expressed a sincere appreciation and genuine feeling of gratitude. There was none of the bitterness one would expect from someone who had too often been ignored and neglected and too seldom shown so much as a sliver of decency or mercy. Instead, there was a warmth to these interactions that seldom occurred in private practice; they believed that I could help them and, slowly, I began to believe it too.

"The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems" - Mohandas K. Ghandi

For the first time, I truly understood just how dangerously out of balance our world is, and I was determined to do something about it.



A World Divided

As I took in the reality that surrounded me everyday, I couldn’t shake the feeling of a global wrong or help but to begin to connect the dots.  Coming from my world of relative plenty, it was difficult to digest that such abject poverty even existed, much less persisted, unabated and with little more than the most fleeting levels of attention or urgency.  Knowing we live in the wealthiest of times in all of human history, the cruelty of witnessing so many lives condemned to either untimely death or unnecessary suffering was incomprehensible. 

"He is now rising from affluence to poverty." - Mark Twain 

Technology and globalization have made our world smaller than at any time previously, only heightening the fact that the fittest of the First World really does live smack in the face of the Third. So why is it that so few of us get to enjoy our "first world" membership whilst the majority of the human race is denied this gold card status? As my days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, that was the burning question that I couldn’t shake from my mind. Perhaps as you read these postings, you may begin to ask yourself this same question. While the answer is not a pretty one, I do believe that it is an essential acknowledgment that should be part of each and every step that we place on this Earth.

Yet, in spite of painful story after painful story, misery upon misery, I found people getting on with their life, rising gloriously above conditions that would break the best of us. In this ability to persevere through the worst, I gained not just a newfound perspective, but a worldview.  What moved me most was finding such a large number of people in places as poor in economic wealth as Ghana or Togo, nonetheless standing together to make life better, not just for themselves, but for one another. I was blessed with the opportunity to talk for hours on end with inspiring and dedicated companions. I was privileged to work alongside lawyers earning modest 5-figure salaries with a desire, indeed, a shared obligation to give more than they took. It was a far cry from my experience back home with 6-figure salaried lawyers for whom more never felt like quite enough. I quickly learned from this experience that the degree of one's happiness has far more to do with their disposition than their circumstance. 

It's also why I view seeing other places and cultures as, not only a way of understanding the special challenges that are unique to different parts of the world, but also as quite possibly the best means of appreciating the common interests and aspirations that unite us. After living with people on the edge of survival, it becomes difficult to go back to your old ways and, to my surprise, I soon discovered that I was able to live quite comfortably with an almost monkish simplicity. Gradually, I learned to be indifferent to myself and to my own deficiencies. I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection – ways in which I could seek to become much more than just an armchair critic.

"The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live" - Norman Cousins

Witnessing firsthand how seemingly small and fragmented individual efforts can add up to a powerful social force, provided that enthralling eureka moment that finally rid me of the 'excus-itis' that had always held such sway.  The period that proceeded was one characterized by a ravenous quest for answers, and the topics and discussions that follow are the fruits of this labour. I am most humbled by all who read these pages, encouraged by those who may share them and anxious for any that may actively participate in their evolution.  I hope that what I have produced herein conveys some of the passion that I feel about the issues that follow and, ideally, helps you to foster some of your own. 

With that, we begin... 



Tuesday, 11 September 2012

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: Part 1 of 2

Before we go any further on this journey together I feel that I should probably properly introduce myself and set out my qualifications as your guide.  First, as has already been stated, I’m a lawyer and, as such, I’m acquainted with public policy and familiar with the rule of law. In fact, I love the law – I actually enjoy leafing through tomes upon tomes of statutes and I particularly relish the opportunity to get up in front of a full Court.  The law’s complexities and intellectual challenges energize me and its power to effect social change both inspires and motivates me. Yet, neither my interest nor my intellect is fully satisfied by legal questions or problems; indeed, my attention, awareness and curiousity have always extended far beyond the realm of legal issues and concerns.  Second, and perhaps on a related note, I have lived and worked in a surprisingly diverse set of locations and conditions – including the heat and congestion of equatorial Africa and the cold and isolation of the High Arctic. I’ve also spent my 9 to 5s toiling above the world in 40-storey monoliths of steel and glass, as well as on the ground floor in compounds of dirt and mud covered by a roof made of corrugated scrap metal. I feel as though the cumulative experiences of having seen our world from many vantage points has helped me to appreciate the real circumstances of both people and the planet in a way that few others have.  I see this as giving me a unique perspective on the world in which we live and the issues that this blog intends to engage. [You are of course welcome to come to your own conclusions.] Third, and as my last post hopefully makes clear, I have not always been a ‘public interest lawyer’.  I understand the world of business. But I also know that business cannot exist without strong communities in which to thrive and to grow.  I like to think that I can fit into boardroom just as easily as at protest rally; at times I've found myself working along the ambitious and unconcerned, people in dark suits with standardized minds, and I don't think I rocked the boat too much. Yet, few who know me on a personal level would ever say that I belonged on Wall Street or Bay Street; nonetheless, this full range of experiences has been indispensable to me – some things in life can never be fully appreciated or understood by a virgin.

I know that such a CV is by no means an automatic qualification of being either well-informed or of having the right answers but it should at least reveal that my views and opinions have been thoughtfully formulated and well-tested in the laboratory of life.  I didn’t just wake-up one fine morning and decide that I wanted to find intolerable and corrosive problems with our present-day society and priorities, they hit me in the face. And I wasn’t born with any predisposition towards wanting to change the system; in fact, I - perhaps even more than most - was initially far more hung-up on fitting in and proving myself within that system than on changing it... and that's where my story begins. 



All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them" – Galileo Galilei

The Personal Story that Frames My Understanding

The hard truth is that when I was much younger I think what I wanted most was to find a high-status, high-paying job. Like many of my peers, I thought that was the surest way of not only proving myself but also to paying off my school debts and stamping my ticket out of my middle-class background. But I don’t honestly ever remember questioning whether or not achieving this goal would make me happy – it was more than assumed – and I certainly never thought about how reaching it would impact those around me or what effect it would have on society as a whole.

Then, somewhere along the way, things changed.  My experiences began to alter the way that I looked at things.  For instance, when I was in high school I thought I would go to Wall Street, make millions, and retire by 35. Then I took a trip around the world.  I was 25.  I visited developing countries for the first time in my life. I saw real poverty, not the poverty of the urban slums in my native Canada but those of the squalid shantytowns of South East Asia, refugee camps in Ghana and the ghettos of places in Palestine, Bosnia, Mexico and Russia. It was only then that I started to contextualize my own life.   

It was a series of moving and unforgettable experiences for me.  I found myself both changed and broadened. Perhaps at risk of sounding a bit cliché but, gradually, I was filled with a burning desire to ‘give something back’.  I slowly began to understand what all the great religions and revered spiritual figures of the past have preached (if not always practiced). And this marked the commencement of my own commitment to fight for those same things.  To be clear, it wasn’t a transformation that occurred all at once and overnight – in my experience true change seldom does – but it was from this vantage point that the process of my developing a fuller humanity was underway.

When I returned to Canada I took my station in life at an office downtown, surrounded by people who cared more about client development than personal development.  I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the right way to go. What I learned was that those making large six-figure salaries generally were not sages a whole lot smarter than you or me. Sure, a few of them could throw around stirring rhetoric or drown you with their rolodex of global contacts but, underneath the veneer, the judgement and intelligence of the brightest in a ‘seven sister’ law firm was about on par with what I find in my day-to-day life.  No more, no less. I was far from impressed.

I went through my routine well enough I suppose, but there was a deep sense of having taken the wrong fork in the road awhile back. What I wanted was to lead a life of integrity, one where the things I cared about were given a level of attention commensurate to their value. In the pit of my stomach I knew that spending time at a job which made me dread waking up on Monday mornings, and with people whose lives were filled more with desire and pride than meaning or value, wasn’t going to get me there. Realizing that so often who it is that we become in our twenties determines what we’ll do for the remainder of our lives, I knew I had to take another road before I found myself aged and worn, looking back in time only to discover that I wasted the majority of my hours on things that meant absolutely nothing to me personally. It was from here that my individual search for authenticity was born.

 
'Voluntourism'

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – proverb

Leaving old trails for new ones always entails a certain quantum of risk but in my heart I knew that I had absolutely everything to gain and nothing to lose by leaving behind a career path that I despised.  I knew that the path I was on was wrong for me; although everybody around me told me that it was the road to success, I was certain it wasn’t the one to significance. (I never did understand, how being a spectator in the effort of building a better and fairer society, rather than an active participant, could mark a life of substance?)  See, what moved me wasn’t a hunger for a bigger house or a faster car: it was the far deeper desire of wanting to live a life of congruency and meaning. In short, I had come to the Rubicon – to that moment of decision which faces most young people when they start out in life. I didn’t want much - not to change the world or even necessarily to ‘make a difference’ - my goal was far more modest than that: all I really wanted was for my work and personal life to be just one life. 

I began down this path simply by travelling, truly seeing the world – living the life of an itinerant.  I know what some of you are thinking, “I’ve travelled, I know the world”.  And maybe you are one of those whom have and does, but I’m also skeptical because of my interactions along the way with all the travelling Westerners that I met who intentionally avoided seeing the countries they claimed to visit and know because they never experienced them in the way that the majority of people living there do.  You can only get so much perspective from the comfort of your resort, your spot on the beach or even the local museums, attractions and tourist traps.  These are the same Westerners who go on to say things such as, “you can live like a king on $1.25 a day in a place like Cambodia” when they themselves certainly never tried to do so while they were there. Such statements are filled with apathy and deception. Sure, many goods are sold for less but salaries more than offset the savings. In short, anyone who thinks people are living a life of comfort in any part of the world on $5 a day, much less 1/5th of that, is disturbingly misinformed. I know this because I did it myself.  Those who say otherwise are the people who come back home and still don’t know the difference between relative and absolute poverty, although they often think that they do due to their newfound 'worldliness'. Unfortunately, because of that they are often among those who do far more to confuse global empathy than to assist it.  Alternatively, I found that the less I packed on my journeys (both physically and financially) the more that awaited me on all accounts. 

My travels were expeditions undertaken in search of a greater and truer understanding of our global commons, ‘learning journeys’.  I lived with people who had to make decisions as to whether or not they could afford to let their children go to school (and I’m not talking about college or even junior high), orphans who prostituted themselves in order to eat, children who didn’t expect anything for Christmas and young girls for whom sanitary wear wasn’t even an option.  Seeing such suffering shook me to my very core and forced me to become more than just an armchair critic. [Please see an earlier posting of mine “Crossing Borders to Make a [small] Difference”, to get a fuller idea of my experiences]. I was fortunate during this time to engage with people and places that were worth knowing and to be exposed to problems and issues that were worth working on. This enabled me to transcend my normal, localized sense of self and it is this that has driven me to possess an almost obligatory passion for activism. 

My experiences led me to volunteer in places I never expected, from WWOOF locations in Central America, to giving English lessons and on to West Africa as a legal intern working for medical advocacy and basic social justice.  I’m not going to lie, there were times where I questioned myself. Times when I wondered whether or not there was any use in keeping on. For instance, after 7 plus years of post-secondary education I found myself surviving on a stipend of less than a couple $100 a week. I had moments of weakness where I let myself worry about whether I’d be able to pay off my student loans [I did] or if I’d ever make enough money to take care of the people I love [I do].  The key was that I never let those worries overcome me, veer me off my present path; never did they trump my passion to persist.  The main source of my faith was a direct result of working with people undergoing far greater tragedies than my own, those enduring real misfortune. It was from this experience that I finally learned to put my own frustrations and worries into proper perspective.  It is also for that reason that I sincerely believe that if you and the rest of us would put ourselves in these positions – work alongside others in this way, give a bit of ourselves for a cause and purpose greater than what we can ever do when only thinking, acting and living as individuals – we would all, united and together, come to these very same conclusions.

Once you’ve walked through a vanishing forest, you’ll want to try and save it. Once you’ve seen a woman die of a curable illness because she was deemed too poor or old to warrant medical attention, you’ll want to make a difference. Once you’ve sat with a sick and starving child without a family, you’ll want to get involved.

(To be continued…)

Ask yourself the fundamental question: "Who am I?"

Once you have your answer, begin to live your life with congruency.