Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tales of an Urban Newbie: February 7 - 14, 2011

After a full week of apartment sabotage, job interviews, and getting lost multiple times, I’m surprised I had any energy left in me to make it another week (okay, I’m a little melodramatic).  Somehow, I made it through, and secured three jobs in the process. 

I began my first week in training for a position as a call centre agent.  I greedily accepted this position with the intention of quitting after my training week so that I could move onto a more respectable position as an HR interviewer for a background checking company.  After spending a week in training, making a few friends, and realizing that the job wasn’t as evil as I’d anticipated, my opinion started to sway. 

During the week I got closer with my training group, met some of the other call centre agents and staff members, and tried to catch my next concert, the Weakerthans that Thursday at Le Cabaret du Mile End.  My roommate, her sister and I left for the Cabaret at around 6:30 pm – which should have been plenty of time, even considering that we were going for smoked meat at the world famous Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen and I had to meet up with Ms. Charles to sign our contract for CollectivelyBeautiful

But when we were outside the Laurier Metro station after filling our bellies and signing the contract we were asked by a kind, young stranger if we knew where the Brasserie Artisanale Dieu Du Ciel was.  I could hardly pronounce it, let alone locate it on a map.  After collaboratively inspecting the giant city map outside the Metro we realized we were going in the same direction, so we all decided to walk together. 

When we got to the Brasserie, our new friend invited us in to have a beer.  In the spirit of making new friends, we thought “what the hell, why not?” and decided to join him and his friend (for anonymity’s sake, I’ll call them Shawn and Rick.  Rick had recently moved to Montreal, and Shawn was planning to once he found work, so we all bonded through our common lack of friends in the area.  After about 45 minutes, we decided to head to the concert and bid our new friends farewell.

Arriving at the Cabaret was like déjà vu.  I could hear the music, I sprinted up the stairs, but when I got to the top no one asked me to pay admission and the people in the crowd gave us really strange looks.  About thirty seconds later the band announced that it would be their last song of the night.  (If you’re counting, the current score for concert attendance is Montreal - 2, Allie - zero.)  So, I figured at least at this rate the next concert I’d go to that I would see three songs, minimum.  You have to celebrate the small victories.

Now, by the end of the week there were a few things about the call centre that slowly won me over.  One of my biggest complaints about my last job in government was that it was really difficult to make friends there who had similar interests as me, since the vast majority of my co-workers were married with children.  So the fact that the call centre is made up of a predominantly young staff was really appealing to me.  I was already making friends in a new city in my first week – more than I’d made in Edmonton in two and a half years. 

Also, probably for the same reason that it was easy to make friends, it was a really laid back environment – I could wear leggings and a hoodie to work, which I can’t say the same for any of my jobs since I stopped babysitting.  My co-workers all shared a similar cynical sarcasm for life in general and I felt like I fit in almost immediately.

Finally, my schedule at the call centre had the ability to be extremely flexible.  The company used an online scheduling system that lets employees check their schedule, drop shifts, pick up shifts or trade shifts, request time off, and check when other employees are working.  Being an internet junkie and techo-geek, the idea of having my schedule at my fingertips really revved my engine.  Another small win-over was the potential for commission – it wouldn’t be much, but probably enough to make a small dent in the month bills.

My final decision was made when I called the other job to find out if I could get time off before I started – I needed the following Friday and Monday off: that was it.  When the woman called me back, she left a message saying that if I couldn’t make training they would have to offer the job to someone else.  Now, it wasn’t necessarily what she said, but how she said it that I was offended by.  Her tone came across “holier than thou,” like my very survival was in her hands alone, and the attitude turned me off more than the fact that they wouldn’t give me the time off.  My roommate’s twin sister was in town that week and I ended up forgetting to call the other job I’d been offered until Sunday.  When I called I mentioned not only would I be declining the position due to my scheduling conflict, but also that I’d been offered another position. 

This seemingly harmless voicemail would eventually give me the age-old “foot in mouth” syndrome, but I’ll save those details for week six.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Promise...

Althought at the moment I currently am writing about many past-tense issues and events, mostly to do with my own life, that, of course, is not my ultimate goal.  As many of you may or may not know, I'm attending graduate school in June of this year to pursue a professional career in Journalism.  I've been doing my best to remain up-to-speed with national and international events, but an open letter posted almost a year ago by the Canadian Association of Journalists only recently caught my attention, and it stirred something deep inside of me - giving me chills again and again.

Let me begin by defining my goals as a journalist:

I want to be honest and transparent, even if that means not getting the most razzle-dazzle story out there.
I want to be dedicated and passionate, and I want those qualities to be reflected in my work.
I want to be a representative and spokesperson for Canadians and citizens of the world, alike - finding out the answers to the questions that many will never be given the opportunity to ask.
I want to have the opportunity to cover meaningful and powerful stories that will hopefully rejuvenate and revolutionize our nation.
I believe this is my duty as a person, a journalist, and a Canadian.

That being said, I think that it's imperative that every Canadian reads this open letter authored by many journalists in Canada who also share these values.  Each of us needs to forget the glitzy, hot-topic, cultivated news that we have become so accustomed to.  This is not real news.  The real news is what we're not seeing.  The acts that are staged by our government are just that - an act.  The real news is that we're not getting all the answers, all of the facts, or even all of the footage, from our government.  

So please, read this letter and support your local and national journalists in their battle against our nations political representatives for truth, transparency, and respect - not only for journalists as professionals, but for each of us as proud citizens of this great nation and the world.

"June 2010
A few weeks ago, many journalists nodded knowingly at this Tweet by Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn.
“My Friday giggle… a spokesperson who emails me “on background” and then says: I can’t answer your question.”
It’s a bit of gallows humour about a problem that began as a minor annoyance for reporters working on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and has grown into a genuine and widespread threat to the public’s right to know.
Most Canadians are aware of the blacked-out Afghan detainee documents and the furor over MPs’ secret expenses. 
But the problem runs much deeper.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the flow of information out of Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Cabinet ministers and civil servants are muzzled. Access to Information requests are stalled and stymied by political interference. Genuine transparency is replaced by slick propaganda and spin designed to manipulate public opinion.
The result is a citizenry with limited insight into the workings of their government and a diminished ability to hold it accountable. As journalists, we fear this will mean more government waste, more misuse of taxpayer dollars, more scandals Canadians won’t know about until it’s too late.
It’s been four years since Harper muzzled his cabinet ministers and forced reporters to put their names on a list during rare press conferences in hopes of being selected to ask the prime minster a question. It’s not uncommon for reporters to be blackballed, barred from posing questions on behalf of Canadians.
More recently, information control has reached new heights. Access to public events is now restricted. Photographers and videographers have been replaced by hand-out photos and footage shot by the prime minister’s press office and blitzed out to newsrooms across Canada. It’s getting tougher to find an independent eye recording history, a witness seeing things how they really happened — not how politicians wish they’d happened. Did cabinet ministers grimace while they tasted seal meat in the Arctic last summer? Canadians will never know. Photographers were barred from the fake photo-op.
Those hand-out shots are, unfortunately, widely used by media outlets, often without the caveat that they are not real journalism.
In the end, that means Canadian only get a sanitized and staged version of history — not the real history.
Meanwhile, the quality of factual information provided to the public has declined steadily. Civil servants – scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and policy experts, those who draft public policy and can explain it best to the population — cannot speak to the media. Instead, reporters have to deal with an armada of press officers who know very little or nothing at all about a reporter’s topic and who answer tough questions with vague talking points vetted by layers of political staff and delivered by email only.
In addition, the Access to Information system has been “totally obliterated” by delays and denials, according to a scathing report by the country’s information commissioner. Requests are met with months-long delays, needless censoring and petty political interference — the most cringe-worthy recent example involves a bureaucrat forced to make a mad dash to the mailroom to rescue a report on Canada’s real estate holdings after a senior political aide ordered the report “unreleased.”
Politicians should not get to decide what information is released. This information belongs to Canadians, the taxpayers who paid for its production. Its release should be based on public interest, not political expediency.
This breeds contempt and suspicion of government. How can people know the maternal-health initiative has been well thought out or that the monitoring of aboriginal bands has been done properly if all Canadians hear is: “Trust us”?
Reporters have been loath to complain about this problem. But this needs to change. This is not about deteriorating working conditions for journalists. It’s about the deterioration of democracy itself.
Last month, reporters gathered in Montreal at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ conference to discuss these issues. On behalf of our members, we are calling on journalists to stand together and push back by refusing to accept vague email responses to substantive questions that require an interview with a cabinet minister or a senior civil servant. We are also asking journalists to stop running hand-out photos and video clips.
We are also calling on journalists to explain better to readers and viewers just how little information Ottawa has provided for a story. Every time a minister refuses to comment, a critical piece of information is withheld or an access request is delayed, Canadians deserve to know.
Finally, we are asking editors to devote the time and money it takes to dig beyond the stage-managed press conferences to get to the real story.
This is not about ideology or partisanship on the part of journalists. Journalists aren’t looking to judge the policies of the Conservative government. Rather, we want to ensure the public has enough information to judge for themselves.
Journalists are your proxies. At our best, we ask the questions you might ask if you had a few minutes with your prime minister or with Environment Canada’s top climatologist. When we can’t get basic information, we can’t hold your government to account on your behalf. In order to have a genuine debate about matters of national interest, people need information. In order for citizens to be involved and engaged and make smart choices at voting time, they need information. It’s time we got some.
Hélène Buzzetti
President, Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery
Mary Agnes Welch
President, Canadian Association of Journalists
Brian Myles
President, Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec
Kim Trynacity
President, Alberta Legislature Press Gallery
Christine Morris
President, New Brunswick Press Gallery
David Cochrane
President, Newfoundland Press Gallery
Réal Séguin
President, Quebec Press Gallery
Wayne Thibodeau
President, Press Gallery of the Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly
Karen Briere
President, Saskatchewan Legislature Press Gallery Association"

Friday, April 1, 2011

Tales of an Urban Newbie: The Trials and Tribulations of Acclimating to a New City

(This series of articles about my getting to know Montreal is also featured on the website, along with many other useful, interesting, and thought-provoking pieces - take a look!)

So, although I’ve visited Montreal several times before, and have visited countless other cities, I’m still incredibly directionally challenged.  And that’s just the icing on the cake.  Add in the fact that I’m most familiar with running on New York time (where just about everything begins at least 45 minutes after it’s supposed to) and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Firstly, I’m not sure if it’s just my apartment, or apartments all over Montreal, but I’m fairly certain that everything in my apartment, from the front door locks to the knobs on the stove, work backward.  I arrived to my apartment after a 20-hour train ride from Nova Scotia, I had 9 pieces of luggage with me, and was stranded in the hallway because I couldn’t unlock my door.  

After 45 minutes of turning one lock, then the other, then turning them back again, I finally managed to make my way inside.  I’m used to locks that unlock when you turn the key counter clockwise, and lock when you turn them clockwise; however, my new door does just the opposite.  I don’t know any other person who has broken a sweat unlocking their front door, but I somehow managed it. 

One can’t live in an apartment without food in it, so I decided it was grocery time.  I headed down the street to the local Metro to pick up the usual basics and everyday items.  What I didn’t realize upon exiting the store was that there are, in fact, two entrances/exits in two different sides of the building.  I, of course, exited out a different door than I had come in, without realizing it, which resulted in me walking four blocks in the wrong direction with five heavy bags of groceries.  When I realized how lost I was, I gave up and called a cab.  I had walked in the precise opposite direction of my apartment.  Five dollars, and less than three blocks, later my less was learned.

Now, I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since the night before on the train when I had a miniscule egg sandwich with couscous, which was grossly overpriced.  I put a pot of water on the stove and waited for it to boil.  This attempt gave me a whole new appreciation for the saying, “a watched pot never boils.”  I waited, and waited… then waited some more.  Nearly an hour passed and the water was still just barely warmer than room temperature. 

What I didn’t realize, that my front door lock and stove knobs had conspired against me.  For every stovetop appliance that I’ve used in recent memory, you turn the knob counterclockwise, to turn it on, and as you continue to turn, the temperature will get hotter and hotter.  This was not the case in my apartment, but the complete opposite.  And, to make matters work, only half of the burners on the stove are functional.  I’m surprised I didn’t pass out from exhaustion by the time I finally managed to make my meal.  Needless to say, I expected the worst when I went to take a shower later that night.  Thankfully, showers are pretty fool-proof.

That weekend I had planned to see a band called the Radio Dept. that I’ve been waiting to check out for about a year now.  They were playing at a little venue that is inside a bigger venue, on Rue Prince-Arthur.  Tickets were only $15, and even though there was a blizzard outside, my roommate and I decided to brave the weather for some good live music.  We left our apartment at 10:45 pm, expecting the headlining band to go on around 11:30 pm or so. 

My assumption was based on the usual schedules of shows that take place in the greatest metropolis in North American – New York City – and this assumption couldn’t have been farther from actuality.  After trudging though the snow with the wind howling past us, we arrived at the venue.  It was around midnight and as I ran up the stairs the anticipation continued to build, but when I got to the top of the stairs and sprung through the door, the venue was empty, the stage was torn down, and the music was no where to be heard.  I asked the bartender what time the bands usually come on.  She helpfully responded, “Anytime”.  “Yeah, thanks,” I thought, “That was really helpful.”

I sulked my way to the other, larger venue there, since we’d already paid cover.  It wasn’t exactly the live rock I’d expected, but we made the most of it anyway.  After evading a creepy Swedish man who was clearly on mood-enhancing drugs, watching a young guy spontaneously projectile vomit next to us, and dancing and laughing more than I previously considered humanly possible, we headed home. 

It was a successfully unsuccessful first outing in Montreal and a solid way to end my first full week in my new home city.  Though, I was hoping that my skills and timing would get better as time went by.