The news in 2016 was again dominated by the plight of refugees, people forced by circumstances not of their choosing to look for a new home.
When Hospitality House Refugee Ministries decided this past fall to open the gates for private refugee sponsorships for Winnipeg, they got more than 30,000 applications in six weeks — not skilled immigrants, just people looking to join their families, who want a new home here in Manitoba.
The news was perhaps more dominated by weather, however — the real and projected effects of the Earth’s changing geology, not just its climate. Geologists have conceded the existence of a new age of the Earth, the Anthropocene, because evidence of human interactions with the planet itself will be found in the distant future by whoever digs through to find our level in the dirt, just as we dug up the dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs did not wipe themselves out, however — as a species, we are the first on Earth to potentially have such a dubious distinction.
So this year, concern for the Earth as our home was paired with the desire for people to find a new home.
When John Glenn, the first American astronaut to circle the planet, died in December, I thought back to those pictures at Christmas in 1968 from Apollo 8 of Earth as the blue dot in space. Those images gave those of us with the opportunity to see beyond a daily struggle to survive a different perspective on how we live together. The race to the moon was a goal set in imagination, however much it was embedded in the Cold War.
The race to Mars, however, seems more of an attempt to escape the mess we have made of our home on Earth — out of desperation, not imagination, because we know the planet is in trouble because of what we have done.
Our instinct is for survival. We actually have to choose extinction, in the same way people must choose to be ignorant when anything we want to know is literally at our fingertips, through a smartphone.
Beyond the primary instinct to survive the moment, however, people everywhere take the next step, in whatever horrible circumstance, to make as much of a home as they can, for themselves and for their children.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of my own arrival in Manitoba, brought here from Alberta as a child when my father took a transitional job, working his way back home to Nova Scotia — and then never left.
As with government-sponsored refugees, who are told where they must "land" in Canada for their first year, such as the waves of Eastern European immigrants who made it to Winnipeg as the "gateway to the West" in the early 20th century, many Manitobans did not see this place at first as "home."
By choice, however, it became their home. In my 50 years as a Manitoban, I lived elsewhere in Canada for 15 of them… and still tried, every year, to come home.
But home isn’t just where the heart is. Home is also where the education is — and after a first degree at the University of Winnipeg, I had to roam quite a distance to get the other education I wanted.
Home also is where the job is, and that took me (and many other Manitobans) elsewhere to find work. Some of us found our way home — I live in the community where I grew up, and the classmates from high school in Selkirk I encounter are evenly divided between those who moved away and then came back, and those who never left.
Home is also where there should be opportunity for yourself and for your children. It is only an aberration of the post-Second World War generation that you need to go elsewhere to find education, work or opportunity. It is evidence of "progress," we are told — but living out of a suitcase full of gadgets, on the move, chasing some illusion of a better life, makes psychological refugees of us all.
We are all searching for home; and somehow, instinctively, we know when we find it, when we return to it or how to create it when we have the chance to stop running.
The link between wanting and creating a home is intention. Home is not accidental; it is intentional. Some of what makes a home is stuff, things that become imbued with emotional significance, when they are just ordinary things to other people. Some of what makes a home are activities, routines or family traditions that take place when the family gathers. Yet the core of any home is the relationships with other people, family first, but also all of the people with whom you weave together a life over a period of time in any one place.
Some of those relationships are intensely personal, others casual; but all together create the sense of arrival from away when you return to somewhere you know is home. Even years later, I have watched others recreate those relationships in memory with people who have long since died, as they pass by the places where those memories were rooted.
I have many memories myself, of what happened as I grew up here, of people whose lives intersected with mine in Selkirk, in St. Andrews and in Winnipeg. When I walk around the University of Winnipeg these days, I have eerie remembrances of trailing behind one of my history professors, Vince Rutherford, as he steamed through the hallways to correct an injustice on my behalf. Other times, I walk past the offices where, 40 years ago, I got the counsel that shaped my life journey, still expecting somehow the door will open and reveal the faces of friends who are long gone.
There was Father Semen Izyk, the tiny Ukrainian Catholic priest in Rossdale who survived three concentration camps, founded Progress Press and would picket — by himself, if necessary — the Red Army Chorus when it arrived for concerts. One day, he sat with me and told me his story — in broken English — trusting what I would write for the newspaper about what he had written in his Ukrainian book (which I still have), translated many years later as Smiling Through Tears.
There was Geordie Sutherland, who would come to church in Selkirk every Sunday in his blue Legion blazer, wearing his veterans’ badges with pride, but who could never bring himself to tell me what it was like to be badly wounded as a teenager at Passchendaele in 1917.
There was the Remembrance Day dinner in Clandeboye, hosted by the whole community and feeding thousands of people a meal they would remember, every year.
Walking or driving around town is literally a trip down memory lane when you come home, even for a little while.
Yet those memories are not always happy ones. Our lives are scarred as well as shaped by what we have experienced growing up, by loss and grief that make those familiar places into painful reminders.
They can be reminders of what still needs to heal, over time and at a distance, or of things we promise never to do ourselves because we know how much we were hurt by others.
I have found, though, that Manitobans don’t always value what we have here at home as they should — what we need to preserve, what we need to celebrate and what we need to change.
Having moved away and then come back allows some perspective on what you find when that familiar blast of cold air on a clear winter day clears your head, as well as your sinuses.
Clean air, clean water, open skies, green things growing for miles in every direction, tussles with wildlife in our backyards and walks in parks, encountering wilderness where we find things unchanged for thousands of years — these things are increasingly rare in a crowded world where industrial development would be better described as pillaging the planet.
Other places have traded short-term economic benefits for the destruction of local ecology. There is no justification for fouling our own nests, ruining the eco-scape of our own home, in exchange for something shiny that does not pass the test of improving the lives of the seventh generation of Manitobans to come.
When it comes to industrial development, it is much wiser to learn from the mistakes of others, instead of just repeating them here.
We need to celebrate our community life, to intentionally foster it, encourage it and find ways to nurture traditions that are rare elsewhere. For all of our flaws, Manitoba has an incredibly diverse, welcoming, hospitable and generous culture. Folklorama is no accident. Neither is the fact Manitoba consistently leads the country in charitable giving. This especially means fostering the life of small communities that still dot that prairie landscape; it’s not just all about Winnipeg. If we threw open our doors to the world the way it happened a hundred years ago, new people would rejuvenate those communities in just the same way as they were founded.
Yet we also, unfortunately, need to change how we value each other. For too long, we have celebrated Manitobans who made good by leaving, while at the same time passing over local people for jobs in favour of mysterious strangers from away whom we hoped would make Manitoba their home, once they got past the cold weather and mosquitoes.
Our most important natural resource is our people, the ones who know the communities because they grew up there; the ones who know the land, because they have walked it and worked it; the ones who understand the rivers and lakes because they have lived beside them and on them.
In a climate-changing world, where stability will be a luxury enjoyed by too few, we need to plant our feet, to live close to home — in the communities we understand, with the people we know — and build the foundation right here that we need for the future.
Instead of making excuses for the things we don’t have, we should set an example for how other communities around the world can live sustainably with what they have. I could make a long list of what we still need to change ourselves, but that is not the point.
We don’t need answers from away, nor do we need more wise men from the East.
Here in Manitoba, we have the means and the opportunity to create a sustainable future — respecting each other regardless of difference, celebrating the relationships in the communities where we live, and showing respect for this small part of the planet that we call home.
We just need to do it ourselves.
Peter Denton is the author of Live Close to Home (2016). He teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action xCentre.